Aspen Film and Aspen Institute host ‘Boys State’ virtual screening |

Aspen Film and Aspen Institute host ‘Boys State’ virtual screening

Steven Garza in the documentary "Boys State," which screens Sunday online in presentation by Aspen FIlm and the Aspen Institute.
Courtesy photo


What: ‘Boys State,’ presented by Aspen Film and the Aspen Institute

When: Sunday, July 26, 6 p.m.


How much: $20

More info: The virtual screening will be followed by a panel discussion with filmmakers Amanda McBaine & Jesse Moss, along with film subjects Ben Feinstein, Steven Garza, and René Otero.

The future of American democracy is at issue in the new documentary “Boys State,” but its subjects aren’t the politicians you’d expect. Instead, the documentary focuses on 1,000 Texas high schoolers who gather for the annual week-long program to learn about governance and civil discourse by doing it and building a mock state government.

“Who we elect matters,” a teacher tells the students at the film’s outset. “How we elect matters. The most dangerous weapon we have in our fight to defend democracy is us being willing to give a darn and to fight for it.”

We don’t hear from adults much after that, as the film jumps into fascinating close-up profiles of a handful of young Texans vying for office at Boys State. Their surprisingly earnest and hard-fought campaigns underline both the beautiful and the ugly sides of American democracy.

Filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ film won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, making “Boys State” one of the most anticipated documentary releases of this election year. With the coronavirus pandemic keeping most movie theaters closed, it is due for a digital release in August on Apple TV+. But Aspen Film and the Aspen Institute are screening it online Sunday evening, as part of their joint New Views series. The one-night digital screening will be followed by a panel discussion with the filmmakers and film subjects.

Boys State, a national program sponsored by the American Legion, has long been a proving ground for American politicians. Alumni include President Bill Clinton, Vice President Dick Cheney, Sen. Cory Booker and right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh.

In the film, the selected Texan participants are split randomly into two parties — the Federalists and the Nationalists — and challenged to come up with party platforms, elect party officials and then run primaries and general elections for congressmen and governors.

“Boys State” finds captivating characters in this swirl of testosterone and ambition, and finds something of a microcosm of our troubled electoral process. We meet young men like Rene, a brilliant young Black leader among mostly white faces who wins election as a party chairmanship, and Ben, a bright double amputee and Reagan-worshipping conservative who finds his ideals compromised as he works on a gubernatorial campaign. Yes, of course, the campaigns get dirty as Steven, a soft-spoken progressive son of immigrants, faces off against the aggressive, West Point-bound Robert for the mock governor’s seat.

Along the way, these boys learn about the limits of bipartisanship and the cost of public service and, maybe, offer viewers some hope for the future.