Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 29, 2020

A24 documentary Boys State accurately reflects my camp experience

By SEAN GLAISTER | October 2, 2020

boys-state
NATHAN / CC BY 2.0 American Legion Boys State is a summer leadership and citizenship program for high school juniors with a focus on American government.

Boys State, a week-long summer camp hosted in every American state by the American Legion, is a mock government with upwards of 1,000 17-year-old high school boys. At first glance Boys State looks like a mob of conservative white boys, which might make you think that the camp is nothing more than a failed attempt to organize adolescent chaos. But I can assure you — as a former participant myself — that it is something much more.

Apple and A24, an independent entertainment company, recently released a documentary film adaptation of this program called Boys State, directed and produced by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine. Given the current political climate and ideology of the movie studio, I immediately thought Boys State would be depicted as a satirical comedy when I heard about the adaptation. Though I would’ve enjoyed reminiscing about my time at Colorado Boys State with scenes of the more bizarre and funny moments that can arise at camp, I was surprised, impressed and pleased to see the way Moss and McBaine decided to portray it.

I attended Boys State the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. My reason for going had nothing to do with my affiliation with the American Legion; rather, I went because of my interest in pursuing such a cool political simulation. I packed up a couple of bags and headed down to the camp quarters at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs with my friend. Campers were given two identical shirts that they were required to wear over the course of the week.

In no time I was surrounded by hundreds of guys from Colorado that I had never met before. All wearing the same shirt, everyone became slightly deindividualized and part of the same team rather than separate individuals. Starting the next morning, campers were broken into several “cities” and told to elect officials. The day after that, cities were combined to make “counties,” and new officials were again elected. Finally elections were held for executive state government.

Long story short, my Boys State experience included nonstop speeches, rowdiness, patriotic sentiment and exhaustion. Regardless, at the end of it all, I took away invaluable interactions and experiences with some really unique people.

My first reaction to Boys State was impressed. It was impressively accurate. Films often seem to polish real life, but if there’s one experience that shouldn’t be polished, it’s one embedded solely within awkward teenagers — the epitome of unpolished. My entire week at Boys State consisted of alternating between paying attention and nodding off as boys gave their speeches, with rare orators of real talent pulling in everyone’s attention from time to time.

From the awkward ones given by shy speakers to the over-enthusiastic ones who would shout about meaningless topics, the movie immediately captured this range of speeches. However, with a few good and tasteful jokes, a composed attitude and the right amount of seriously addressing important topics, a rare speech would occur and send someone through an election. 

The documentary successfully highlighted some of these speeches and also impressively zoomed into the closer interactions between campers as they occurred. Most notably, they caught the small conversations that would occur between campers during walks between buildings or during free time towards the end of the day. These were important moments where boys would form closer bonds or speak truthfully about their thoughts about the camp.

The documentary also hit several other key characteristics of the camp, including the constant rowdiness and energy of the campers throughout the day and the ridiculousness of laws and other products of the mock government.

Boys State managed to stick to depicting the experience accurately while also portraying a genuinely entertaining story. The documentary mainly followed one protagonist, Steven, who is Hispanic, progressive and the son of immigrant parents. Despite what one would first judge to be incompatibility with his surrounding campers, we get to see his campaign for governor succeed as he dedicates himself to reaching out to campers individually over the course of the week and connecting with them in ways that span beyond ideology. It’s impossible not to find yourself cheering for his speeches and rooting for him until the end of the movie. His run for governor is exciting to the end, especially as clever strategies are employed by both campaigns in the election.

By implicitly uncovering several truths, the documentary takes advantage of the unique psychology experiment that is Boys State. In the documentary it is apparent that the ideal electee doesn’t necessarily need compatible ideology with the crowd or even overzealous charisma. As demonstrated by Steven, a strict dedication to his campaign and to the people he runs for can work magic in an election at this scale. Though ideology doesn’t matter at Boys State, one value that was center among all the campers was a genuine pride in the U.S.

This was personally one of my favorite takeaways from Boys State. Putting ideology and politics aside — from my own camp experience and in the movie — it was inspiring to hear about and see each camper’s unique devotion to the country. Some campers were immigrants, grateful for the opportunity to have been able to achieve a steady life, while others simply respected the sacrifices and services that were made by and for the U.S. and wished to repeat the service themselves.

The ending of the documentary is nothing short of genuine. After the biggest elections of the week, emotions are high. Campers commend the victorious elected officials with loud applause and cheers, but they also make a big effort to console those who lost and share with them how proud and impressed they were by their campaigns. Regardless of the quality of interactions between camp members throughout the week, each person is sad to put an end to their Boys State experience. Many campers probably will not see a majority of the people they’ve met there in the foreseeable future.

From beginning to end, it’s evident that the campers attend because they’re serious about learning more about the American political system and gaining bonds and friendships with people they’d never meet otherwise.

The idea of 1,000 17-year-old boys thrown into an enclosed camp compound for a week is crazy. It’s hard not to take advantage of an opportunity to make fun of the true craziness of this idea and its reality. However, the directors maintained some self-control. And before reacting too quickly, Moss and McBaine moved in closer to the experience, saw the genuinely unique and noteworthy aspects of Boys State and depicted them brilliantly. I would highly recommend this movie to anyone curious to see the dynamics and outcomes of Boys State.

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