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'Boys State' Documentary Explores What Teens Learn About Democracy


The buzz for the movie "Boys State" at this year's Sundance Film Festival was strong - strong enough that Apple paid $10 million for streaming rights. That's a lot of cash for a documentary, but critic Bob Mondello says it's a smart buy in an election year.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The bus driver knows his audience - Texas teenagers fueled by testosterone and ready for some kind of action.


UNIDENTIFIED BUS DRIVER: They told y'all we're going to Austin, but we're actually going to Cozumel, Mexico. So y'all...


MONDELLO: What they're headed for is Boys State in Austin, the week-long leadership conference the American Legion started in 1935 and now holds in every state but Hawaii - sort of summer camp for political junkies. Some 1,200 Texas teens will divide into made-up parties. They'll write platforms, hold elections and they are pumped.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Unintelligible chanting).

MONDELLO: As with reality TV, it's all about the contestants. Filmmakers Jessie Moss and Amanda McBaine concentrated on four young men - Steven, who sports a Beto O'Rourke T-shirt.


STEVEN GARZA: Could I talk to you for a second? I don't want to ask you for your signature unless you actually want me to win. So ask me any question.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What do you think is the objective of (unintelligible)?

GARZA: Public service - serve others, not himself.

MONDELLO: Steven is thoughtful, serious, sincere, as opposed to Robert, a jock who challenges rivals to pushups and is trying out his campaign speech on anyone who'll listen.


ROBERT MACDOUGALL: I will skip the part where I brag for three minutes about how great and cool I am, seeing as we are all qualified young men of skill and character. People like that stuff.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Sounds good, yeah.

MACDOUGALL: People like that stuff a lot.


MONDELLO: Then there's Rene, a Chicago transplant who wants to run the campaign, not run for office, so he's selling his resume.


RENE OTERO: I lobbied. I went to state council meetings just so a man in prison can have his rights. So can you just imagine what I'm capable of for every single one of us out here...

MONDELLO: Rene's opposite number is Ben, a double amputee who also doesn't want to be a candidate. He's shopping for candidates and kind of hates his options.


BEN FEINSTEIN: What do you believe in?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: My views will most likely align with the party for the majority of them. I want to hear open debates.

FEINSTEIN: So in other words, you're waiting for the party to come up with an opinion and then you're going to go with the party. What do you stand for, though?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I stand for freedom.

FEINSTEIN: You stand for freedom. That's a bold policy.

MONDELLO: Ben's the conference Machiavelli and has sussed out how things work at these gatherings. The previous year's attendees got all the wrong kinds of headlines by voting for Texas to secede from the union.


FEINSTEIN: I think when you put a bunch of 17-year-old boys in a room together, they're all tired because talking about taxes is boring. You get crazy stuff like the Lone Star Defense platform.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Recognizing the looming threat of alien invasion, this necessary defense infrastructure will cost around $15 billion to build.

FEINSTEIN: I think last year's secession happening on as wide a scale as it did was like, hey, let's do this. It will be cool. It'll be funny.

MONDELLO: What happens this year would also be funny, except it's sometimes so true to life it kind of hurts. With "Boys State" alumni including Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Cory Booker and at Girls State, Texas Gov. Ann Richards, what parents likely imagine is a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style civics lesson. In practice, things are not quite "Lord Of The Flies," but these kids have internalized our own era's politics.


MACDOUGALL: I'm playing this like a game. My stance on abortion would not line up well with the guys out there at all, so I chose to pick a new stance. That's politics, I think. It's a morally questionable thing to lie in politics, but getting here certainly gave me a new appreciation for why politicians lie to get into office.

MONDELLO: Lessons learned, let the dirty tricks begin. No disrespect to professional pundits in an election year, but this documentary is American politics distilled. It's nuanced, entertaining, seriously clear-eyed. If you're looking for analysis...


OTERO: I think he's a fantastic politician, but I don't think a fantastic politician is a compliment.

MONDELLO: "Boys State" is just the ticket. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.