The temptation, while watching Jesse Moss’ and Amanda McBaine’s endlessly compelling documentary Boys State, is to look upon our nation’s youth and despair. This immersive piece of verite —like the filmmakers’ previous work, The Overnighters, the film makes you feel as if you are experiencing it in real time—chronicles the 2018 edition of a nationwide summer program sponsored by the American Legion that encourages a gathering of civic-minded high schoolers to create a government platform from scratch. It features apple-cheeked kids stabbing each other in the back, purposely bending the truth to win elections and, at one point, actively sharing racist memes to demean and diminish an opponent.
But, as the old commercial goes: They learned it from watching you, Dad. To see these clearly intelligent, ambitious kids almost subconsciously demean their values in the pursuit of power for power’s sake is to see the excesses and moral failings of this Trumpian moment reflected back: To see how the damage we are inflicting will last for generations. So that’s the bad news. The good news is that these kids, even the ones using any underhanded tactic they can to win, are still inspirational: They’re self-reflective, self-critical and, more than anything else, still willing to learn. It might be too late for the rest of us. But it’s not too late for them.
Before the film opened on Apple TV today after winning the Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, GQ spoke with the primary protagonists: Steven Garza, the earnest true believer who learns some hard lessons about the real world; Ben Feinstein, the driven striver who ends up going places he never imagined he’d go; and René Otero, the film’s breakout star. The interview contains mild spoilers.
GQ: Hi guys.
René Otero: I was prepared for this GQ interview. I got some body oil over here.
I come sans body oil. One of the pleasures of watching the movie, and one of the expectations it’s constantly upending, is guessing which of you is going to be the hero, or the villain, or the schemer. René, you’re the operative, the behind-the-scenes guy, this movie’s Rahm Emanuel. But you’re also one of the film’s most charismatic, outgoing characters. I can’t tell how much is me pigeon-holing you in the role of schemer, or if you’re really like that?
Otero: Being on the front lines and getting attention is definitely something that’s a little scary. I don’t want to run for politics because electoral politics is very much based off of a cold personality and that cult of toxic celebrity. I was giving these speeches that I was trying to make as eloquent as possible using five dollar words. I was on camera. I was able to access both of those worlds.
One thing these filmmakers are really good at is making the viewer feel like they are a part of this world. I constantly forget there’s a camera there watching. I know all politics is performative, but how comfortable did you get with the camera? How much of it is the real you? Are you worried that you’ve already changed from the person of the movie?
Steven Garza: I had no idea that the film would end up becoming what it is now, winning awards and being promoted heavily and getting great reviews. I had never watched any of Jesse or Amanda’s films. But I did know that no matter what I would like to have a career in politics, and I didn’t want to present a version of myself that wasn’t true to myself, or that wasn’t really me, or that could be looked back on by other people if I ever decided to ultimately pursue elected office. Honestly: I can’t act at all. I got a C in my film class in college last year. I am very shy and awkward for the first half of the film, and then more confident as I go along.
Ben, at some points of the film, you make some decisions that some might consider underhanded or deceitful in order to win. When you watch the movie, do you feel like you should have done anything differently?
Ben Feinstein: It’s a mix. My role was leading an organization of 500 people. René can attest to this too, just to keep that big of an organization together for a week, when you have no clue what you’re doing, you’ve never met any of these people before, and you have one goal, that’s inherently, like, pretty difficult. The fact that we were able to survive, and my side was ultimately able to win, I’m so proud of that, and I always will be.
But I almost wish that I had seen the film before I actually did the event, right? Because I think that I let slide some things and didn’t put a stop to things quick enough, and there are some tactics that I myself did, or endorsed that I regret. It’s like Boys State was what we made it, and I took it down a level. But then again: it’s Boys State, it’s like, who cares, right? It’s a summer program. I was put there to win, and I did a job and I won. At the end of the day that’s all you can ask for. But I do feel like as a metaphor for broader American politics, I took the example that I saw on TV, from people like our current president and lots of other politicians down the ballot, and instinctually applied it to Boys State. And I didn’t have to do that. Ultimately, though, I walked away feeling more optimistic that that’s not the only way forward, and it shouldn’t be the only way forward.
René, you were often on the other end of those machinations. Were you able to just say, “Yeah, it’s Boys State?” Were you angry when this was over? Are you angry now?
Otero: I was so jaded. In the beginning of the documentary, I kinda established myself as some hot shit? You know what I’m sayin’? And then it all falls apart in front of me. So, I was like, “I can’t stand Boys State. They don’t like me. It’s a conservative conversion camp.” And then, watching the documentary, after watching myself, I’m very grateful for the experience. That tough forced space allowed me to learn some key lessons and forced me to interact with people that I probably wouldn’t have interacted with. Ultimately I’m grateful. I think the program did its job.
Have you been able to relate some of the things that happen in the movie to the current election? I think many audiences are having that reaction.
Feinstein: Yeah, I have. I definitely feel like the way in which our leaders are more and more willing to go down a level, and play to our lower instincts, and dog whistle, and all these nasty things, that has definitely become more of a fixture in our system recently. On both sides, not just one. And it feels like it’s a vicious cycle and performative politics has passed the point of just being in the campaign. It’s getting unhealthy. A global pandemic is something that should be very easy and straightforward for everyone to identify as a problem and just kinda shut up and work together on. I don’t see why that’s become a hot button political issue and why wearing masks has become one, right? If we have leaders on both sides who are so willing to weaponize every single part of our society and turn every single issue into a political statement or a moral judgment, I don’t see where that gets us.
Steven, one interesting thing that happens in the movie is the fact that your activism with the March For Our Lives is used against you in the campaign. The idea of actually physically going out to change something is framed as a negative. Since the film, protests have affected the nation dramatically. Were you involved in any? Do you think if Boys State happened now, that would have still happened to you?
Garza: I wasn’t able to go to any protests because there are people in my family that were more at risk from the virus than most. And that didn’t ultimately matter, because I ended up getting COVID anyway, in the middle of July.
I didn’t know that. I’m sorry. Are you OK? Is your family OK?
Garza: We all got pretty sick but we’re all feeling better now, thank you. As for the protests, I actually feel it would be even more polarized because it has turned into a culture war issue. Black Lives Matter wasn’t that big of an issue at our Boys State, but there were still many strong opinions and beliefs about backing the police and making sure that they have the resources needed. It would have been a thing.
Did they do a Boys State this year?
Garza: Yeah, a virtual one. Ben and I went back as counselors for it. There was definitely a lot of discussion about Black Lives Matter, police reform, backing the blue. It’s a whole different beast virtually. It was better, actually. It’s not that much rah rah patriotism, needing to go to an extreme to get noticed. It’s a lot more about working together, focusing on policy, coming up with what things we could agree on, what things could we make better. It’s very difficult to argue with somebody over a face chat with a bunch of other kids also putting their two cents in at the same time.
Feinstein: Yeah, much of the noise was taken out. I don’t say that in a negative way about in-person programs, because, hey, that noise is awesome, right? There’s nothing like being in a crowd of a thousand people listening to a speaker and just feeling good about the country, and good about each other, and passionate about the mission. Online isn’t gonna replace that. It never will. But in terms of how it actually operated, it was maybe better. I remember my Boys State, us chanting “USA,” and then there’s their Boys State, which featured people sitting in rooms listening to in-depth debates over nuclear energy reactors and I’m like, “What?” It was very operational. There was this very weird sense of self-policing and order to it. I was really proud of them. It worked surprisingly well.
René, I am personally the closest to your politics, I think. And the film makes a strong argument that you’d be terrific in politics in one way or another. Are you going to do it? We could use you.
Otero: I’m not.I have no desire to do that. This entire process, people come up to me at the end of premiers saying, “We need you in office.” I guess that’s good, but it’s also kind of exhausting because I engage civically by engaging in Black Lives Matter protests and research with my community. It makes me wonder, is that not civic engagement because I’m not running for office? What kind of work do I need to perform that is valuable?
Is this still your dream, Ben, to be in politics?
Feinstein: It’s a mix. I’m still immensely passionate about the United States of America and the values that we stand for. Especially recently, there’s been a part of me that knows that we have to move forward in some ways and do a better job living up to that standard. I believe that that standard is something sacred and it’s something that I want to dedicate my life to preserving. And I still want to serve in a more traditional way, Department of State, Department of Defense, something in foreign relations, or something with national security. But I don’t know if I want elected office, necessarily. I don’t know if I’m cut out for it.
René, one of the hard parts watching the film now is seeing how you were treated at times, and wondering whether some of the people who did that are the type that we see in the alt-right now. As someone involved in Black Lives Matter, did you feel that way at times there?
Otero: I will say this: I have no ill feelings about my experience at Boys State. I love Boys State. So in terms of the current election, I will say that at Boys State, we didn’t have a virus, or white supremacists marching in the streets. I will say that the current electoral climate is way worse.
But what you are saying, it was real. When when we began to see the rise of white supremacy in 2016, they’re utilizing titles like “alt-right,” which allowed for the white supremacist systems to distance themselves. With that kind of rhetoric surrounding the discussion of white supremacy, we completely rule out that white supremacy in day-to-day context means any inequality that benefits whiteness over people of color. So when we see people using microaggressions or engaging in racial caricatures or some of the other things that I had to deal with at Boys State, when they intimidate and reduce the power of the person of color in the room, that’s quite literally white supremacy.
So I will not say that I’m surprised that there’s so many people that are engaged in white supremacist movements. I’d rather say that we just are now recognizing how broad of a term white supremacy really is.
Steven, when I describe the movie to friends, it sounds really depressing. But I actually find the three of you, quite exciting and ennobling. You are all thinking about this more than most people much older than you. You, in particular, are extremely earnest. That earnestness ran into the reality of Boys State a bit, and it definitely will run into the real world. Does the world feel uglier to you now than it did while you were doing Boys State?
Garza: It is uglier. It has gotten worse. But that doesn’t kind of change my attitude or make me a cynic or anything like that. If I ever do become cynical about people and politics, then I think that’s a major blow to who I am as a person. I’m an idealist, and a realist. I know that there are issues that I will never, ever, ever concede to the other side of my political spectrum. There are issues that are non-negotiable. But there are also things where I do feel a lot of us actually think similarly, but because we’re so aggravated and so hostile to each other, nothing ever gets done.
So I definitely do feel like the world is worse than it was in 2018. But I think that the process of coming together begins after the president loses this election this November. That’s when that process can begin. I don’t hate Republicans. You’re for, “Down with big government?” I can respect that. You want to lower taxes. You want to make sure your faith is respected. Those are things that I can respect, but with Donald Trump … the country is never going to get better with him still in office.
Originally Appeared on GQ