(Featured image courtesy of Apple TV+)
It’s the dead of winter in Salt Lake City, and the Sundance Film Festival is in full swing. You can’t check Twitter without hearing about some buzzy new premiere, but one project that rises to the top of the coverage is a film about twelve hundred teenage boys engaged in what might be one of the most cutthroat battles for power since Lord of the Flies. No, it’s not a Hunger Games ripoff. It’s a documentary about Boys State.
Every year, a nonprofit organization run by U.S. war veterans hosts a program in every state as an exercise for high school juniors to learn more about civic service and leadership. Twelve hundred teenagers are thrown into a microcosm of American politics, where a representative government must be constructed from the ground up in just one week. In Texas (the setting of this doc), the highest position is the governor, with that election as the grand finale of the program. Two parties, each allowed to construct their own platform of ideologies, elect candidates that run against each other for the top position. The simple goal is to provide civic-minded students of any political leaning an opportunity to gain experience in a lower-stakes setting. For viewers, it’s like a splash of cold water, both chilling and hopeful in how it lays out the reality and promise of our next generation in American democracy.
In a state where the majority of the program participants are white and conservative, left-leaning Bernie fan Steven Garza stands out from the crowd. After struggling to even collect the signatures needed for candidate eligibility, his passionate speeches about the nature of America and democracy gained him an impressive following. The impact of his words left a mark on many of the other teens in attendance (and would soon be leaving an even bigger impact on viewers all around the world).
One of four siblings, Steven was the first in his family to make it past freshman year of high school. His mother left his father when he was very young, and while the family was living with their grandmother, “there were many days that I didn’t see my mom because she worked two or three jobs at a time… It could be a week before I’d see my mom.” He described her as the most hardworking person he’d ever met, coming from nothing in another country to work incredibly hard at building opportunities for her children. Even Garza’s older brothers, neither of whom went on to higher education, were emphasized to be hard workers with honest lives, further proving that the usual college path is not always the key to success. Steven credits every ounce of the Garza family’s success to his mother, who demonstrated how that sort of determination can take you to anywhere.
A month before the actual Boys State occurred, Steven filmed the interviews at his home that viewers can see in the film. Sitting on the steps of his apartment complex, he said, “A parent telling you they’re proud is something that every child wants to hear.” Once you flash forward a month to the end of the program, that quote becomes a sort of eerie foreshadowing, as he has that exact conversation with his mother on the phone.
The most surreal part of Garza’s experience came with watching the doc for the first time at Sundance with his mother. “She cried a lot, and I cried a lot, and when we did the post Q&A, they passed the mic to me… I couldn’t get it out, what I wanted to say… All I got out was, ‘Hi, Mom.’ And the entire audience got up and gave her a standing ovation… It was the best day of my life… That’s forever. Whatever happens, there’s a film, and people can look at that a hundred years from now, and be like, ‘That kid really loved his mom.’”
Before the big week, when Steven went to the orientation for the program participants in his area, he was approached by Jesse Moss, the co-director. At the time, no one knew what kind of project it was going to be, much less that it would eventually be picked up by huge names like A24 and Apple. “He asked a few of us to hang back and just have a conversation.” The teens were just asked about what they were hoping to get out of the program and what they were expecting, and “some kids were very much over-animating stuff a little bit.” Steven recalls some guys going on fiery speeches of passion, though all the while he kept to his naturally calmer and more unassuming personality, and something about that caught Moss’ attention. After everyone else left, Jesse asked him to stay back, and they ended up going out to eat together, simply discussing his family history and the way he grew up, and that was the final push Moss needed to see to bring Steven on as a subject.
One of the biggest questions that always arises when watching a documentary is: Is that what the subjects are really like? So many people, especially teenagers, act differently when there’s a camera in the room, whether it’s putting on more professional mannerisms or trying to act “cooler” than they usually would. While the camera’s presence was exciting, Garza also felt the weight of the added pressure. “If you fizzle out, they’re gonna move on. That’s nothing against them, it’s just the nature of the beast, right? They need to be where the action is.” In fact, there were a couple of other boys chosen to be subjects along with Ben and Robert that just ended up making no waves, so the crew had to refocus their attention on the voices that were attracting attention, like René and Eddy. Many assume that they had dozens on dozens of cameras following endless guys, but it was quite the opposite. Garza praised the documentarians’ “feat” for picking out all the people who would make the biggest impacts and collide with each other in just the beginning days.
He also highlighted everyone behind the scenes as being especially “cautious, making sure the camera doesn’t influence people.” While there were guys who tried to pull attention-grabbing stunts, it was essential to the filmmakers that a naturalistic, cinéma vérité style was preserved, with the camera as only a fly-on-the-wall observer. However, Steven feels that the usual course of Boys State was unaffected by all the filming. “With a camera crew on me, I still struggled to make the ballot. With a camera crew on Robert, he barely made the runoff by two votes.” Eddy didn’t get a camera crew on him until much later. “Everything that happened is just the way it ended up happening. It probably would’ve been exactly the same.”
After barely making eligibility for governor candidacy, Steven quickly shot past every other contender to lead the pack by a wide margin, and his speeches were the gas pedal pushing that momentum. It can be hard to unite hundreds of teenage boys behind anything, especially in such a polarizing political environment, but Garza managed to do it with his passionate messages. Each was carefully constructed, and while they seem effortless in delivery, they were extremely difficult to write. You might think it’s like writing an essay, but Steven disagrees. “If you can write the intro to a paper, the rest of it writes itself,” but with a speech, “you have to make it flow.” Many politicians have the advantage of speaking to a crowd of their supporters, so they know that their big talking points will always get applause and a warm response, but Steven had to draw the audience onto his side. He felt the crowd growing in excitement, so he raised his own energy to match them, until both speaker and listener joined on the same wavelength. “I was not planning on yelling at the end like anybody else.” That one speech ended up being a huge confidence booster, and from then on he had faith that he could always find a way for his words to resonate with the audience.
“I knew, being in the racial and political minority, [I was] the brown in a sea of white, the cinnamon stick in a bowl of milk.” Being more politically liberal, Steven was aware of the fact that his pro-choice and pro-gun reform viewpoints would have been very unpopular with most of the program’s conservative population. However, he wasn’t going to lie about it. “If you were asked, ‘What’s your position on abortion?’ I’m going to say, ‘Pro-choice,’ if it’s one person or a crowd.” However, he knew that to win, he couldn’t focus on those issues that were just destined to divide. His biggest speech, given in opposition to the mock state seceding from the United States, was perhaps the hardest-hitting moment of the film, and it was so effective with the Boys State audience because it was a message of unification. Rather than going for controversial topics that would be impossible for people to agree on, he turned his sights towards a common issue that he believed they all needed to rally around.
Though again, he always felt the need to stay true to himself, despite knowing the odds were stacked against him. That authenticity is likely what made his entire run so successful. “Me and René were two brown people in the political and racial minority who were elected to the top two positions in the party in a group that was overwhelmingly white and conservative.”
One of the easiest things to forget while watching the documentary is how fast the program moves. “I aged like ten years in a week,” Steven joked. There was a set schedule for everything, often with no time for breaks before there was another meeting or event to attend. This would be enough for any normal participant, but Garza also had to find time for the constant sit-down interviews needed to guide the eventual viewer through that chaotic world. However, he also saw this as a nice respite, an opportunity to get away from it all for a little bit. People have asked him after seeing the film, “Why are you always by yourself?” To that, he just replies, “I needed to recharge.” As a candidate for governor, you especially need to be on your most personable A-game, ready to debate issues, defend your stances, or convince a swing voter to your side at any given moment. The hundred-plus degree heat, combined with a jeans-only dress code, constant outside events, and minimal sleep, only added to the exhaustion. However, it became a sort of bonding experience with all the other teens, as “you’re all just trying to make the best out of it.” He did admit that the way he broke down into tears at the end was half due to pride of everyone coming up to congratulate him on his stellar run and half due to the sheer finish line exhaustion. “It’s over. It’s done. I can sleep in tomorrow and do what I want to do.”
The experience reminded Steven of when he worked on Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign for senator. He attended over fifty events with the candidate, admitting, “I don’t know how he did it. I was so exhausted after being with him for a day, and I was like, ‘You have to do this every single day all across the state?’” He recalled O’Rourke having to frequently get new pairs of shoes because he had simply worn the soles out from walking to endless events and meetings. It was sobering for Garza to realize that the insanity of that one week is just some people’s entire life.
The most shocking moment of the film by far is the revelation of Robert’s true political standing. Much of his campaign rested on a pro-life platform, but in one interview, he confides that he is in fact pro-choice and was lying to gain support from the extremely conservative voting population. Steven himself had no idea that Robert was lying until he saw the film for the first time at Sundance. Garza loves watching all of his peers’ personal moments, the ones where you get to see their true selves, but Robert’s confession is still his favorite. “You have this preconceived notion of his entire life and who he is… The audience is led, and then you sit down with him, and it’s a soliloquy. He’s not really talking to the directors. He’s having a conversation with himself.” Steven admitted that hearing about that moment a year and a half later blew his mind, giving him “a new appreciation for why politicians lie to get into office.” It perfectly encapsulated the beauty of documentary filmmaking for him, how no one can really know the full story until it’s done. “None of it is scripted. All of it is raw, it’s one hundred percent real.”
Social media ended up playing a huge role in the Boys State experience, to the point where Steven “can’t imagine what Boys State was like twenty years ago before handheld phones” when you couldn’t hear about what was going on in the opposite party’s room with just a quick text. “It’s exciting to see that if you’re running for a progressive issue, that so many people instantly around the world can hear your position… but it’s also scary, the amount of misinformation… that could influence young people and older people who are more susceptible to propaganda.” Garza recognizes the responsibility that young people now have to identify misinformation when they see it and root out the truth when it may not be readily apparent from a trending topic or video. “I’m never going to be a person who doesn’t know how to use technology.”
In terms of politics, “this pandemic has forced many people to think differently about the way we do things.” Rallies and door-to-door campaigning have been thrown out the window, with digital organizing and social media organizing becoming the ways of the future. “Young people are figuring out the tools they need to continue organizing online,” and while some older generations have needed to adapt to the challenges of the current day, the future leaders of America are already equipped to mobilize the online world to its fullest potential, even beyond political campaigns. “The possibilities of bringing attention to issues that matter to young people is limitless with the power of social media… Our generation [Generation Z] are more politically involved than any other generation because of it.” To be a young social media user today is to be politically aware. This instant dissemination of information allows opinions to be formed at the click of a button, and sometimes those viewpoints can be formed without a lot of information. However, what can’t be ignored is the way that the Internet can invite young minds into the social consciousness to engage in the world around them on a new level.
Today, Garza and his family have been severely impacted by the coronavirus just as much as any other family. “With the pandemic happening, it was the first time my mom has gotten a very long time off of work.” Back in March when everything in Houston began to shut down, she was furloughed for two weeks and told Steven, “I’ve never had this before, to be able to relax and rest.” That two weeks began to stretch into months upon months, until she was laid off just a few weeks ago. “The fact it took that to happen for my mom to get any kind of rest is insane… They say in this country that if you work hard, you’ll get where you want to be, and millions of Americans work their tail off for forty-plus hours just to meet the bare minimum of paying the rent or putting food on the table, and that comes at a cost.” Back in July, Steven, his mother, and his stepfather all contracted COVID-19, which they have all thankfully since recovered from.
Even though the results of the program left some hurt feelings and awkwardness between the guys, Steven emphasized that they’re all friends now and highlighted his love for Robert, Ben, and Eddy. Eddy is now TikTok famous for his outspoken liberal views, “which just goes to show, people change and things change.”
“We’re all friends now. It’s a little bit sad to see people getting the wrong message from the film… Be respectful, and you never know, most people don’t have a week of their lives filmed for a big movie at seventeen… it’s a very delicate thing.” Overall, though Steven has been very pleased with the reception to the film. “It’s very timely. It can make you laugh, it can make you cry. It can make you hopeful, fearful. It’s a crazy ride.”
Garza is currently a student at UT Austin but has been attending virtual school to spend more time with his family. René is at the same school, and Steven joked that he looks forward to “creating a ruckus” with him as soon as it becomes safe to return in person.
Steven expressed nothing but gratitude for his time at Boys State. “Where else in the United States do you get a chance to run for a political office without any kinds of consequences?” He likened it to testing the waters, seeing if he would be able to handle the pressures and expectations of running for a public office. Whether you agree with his ideas or not, in the case of Steven Garza, we can pretty unequivocally say that the answer is yes.
Boys State was eventually awarded Sundance’s U.S. Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize and has since collected considerable Oscar buzz. You can see Steven and all the other titular boys’ stories for yourself on Apple TV+ now.