Credit: Apple TV+
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Streaming Scene

Girls State — Jesse Moss & Amanda McBaine

April 1, 2024

The rare eagerly anticipated sequel to a hit documentary, Girls State, from filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, understandably exists in the shadow of Boys State. Which is to say, it’s a response to both their 2020 nonfiction film (acquired out of Sundance by A24 and Apple for a still astonishing $12 million) as well as the male-centric gathering of teen-aged aspiring political leaders hosted by the American Legion held annually across most of the United States. Boys State (the film) was set in Texas in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre and found hundreds of God-fearing, gun-loving young men converging on a college campus for a week-long civics exercise where they would be split up into randomly selected political parties, forced to devise governing platforms, and even hold mock elections, all in the hopes of following in the illustrious footsteps of past alumni like Bill Clinton, Samuel Alito, and Jon Bon Jovi. Boys State allowed for optimism and pessimism in equal measure; the film’s de facto protagonist, the soft-spoken Steven Garza, emerged as a thoughtful progressive voice able to cut through the pageantry and cult of personality by winning over hearts and minds while, at the same time, the film confirmed that 16-year-olds are already versed in the dark arts of racially-motivated fear-mongering and ratfucking. There was always something a little unseemly in witnessing young men unquestioningly parroting cable news talking points about gun control, abortion, and immigration or lining up behind political purity tests at an age when many of them were still having their mothers do their laundry. Surely young women put in the same circumstances would acquit themselves better (or at least speak more intelligently about reproductive rights)?

The answer, not surprisingly, is both “yes” and “it’s complicated.” In what we’re told is a deviation from the norm, the 2022 Missouri Girls State coincides with Boys State, with both events unfolding simultaneously at opposite ends of Lindenwood University and, try as organizers might keep the two segregated, bleedover and furtive peeks over the proverbial hedge are inevitable. After being warned to be on their best behavior in relative proximity of the boys, the teen girls are also put on notice that not only must they travel at all times with a buddy (an unspoken protection against potential sexual assault), but to be mindful of exposing too much skin in their attire in public spaces, an inauspicious directive that some of the film’s subjects note isn’t imposed on the men. The film follows the identical formula of the earlier film, establishing half a dozen prominent “characters” we’ll follow over the course of the film — each with nascent political ideologies while falling on varying ends of the introvert/extravert spectrum — as they toss their hat into the ring for assorted elected offices to be campaigned for over the course of the week. Dreams are dashed, friendships are made, and a future generation of politicians gets its first hands-on experience in how the sausage is made. However, something feels noticeably “off,” and it isn’t just the viewer who picks up on it.

We’re introduced to the likes of Emily Worthmore, the daughter of a preacher running for Girls State Governor who claims that she’s won every election she’s ever run in and defines herself by regularly announcing that she’s “a conservative” without ever actually sharing what those conservative beliefs might be. We also meet Tochi Ihekona, who, while running for Attorney General, observes that not only is she one of the few people of color at Girls State Missouri, but may, in fact, be the first Black person that many of these girls have interacted with before. The then-recently leaked Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision hangs over the week’s festivities, and not surprisingly abortion is at the forefront of the discourse, galvanizing what is presented as a liberal majority of attendees even in a red state like Missouri. The fallout of the landmark case permeates all aspects of the event, serving as a rallying call on the stump while presenting unique challenges for some of the young women: Emily is forced to soften her beliefs out of political expediency — taking the stance that while she’s pro-life, forcing that onto others would only harden their opposition — while Tochi is put in the uncomfortable spot of arguing against her own position after being called upon to defend the practice of mandating counseling prior to receiving an abortion at a mock trial.

One might assume that the very prescient topic of abortion would signal dramatic fireworks and impassioned arguments amongst the film’s politically-involved participants. However, Moss and McBaine’s cameras capture what can only be described as institutional restlessness, with the film frequently drawing unflattering contrasts between heated yet civil debate on the boy’s side of campus — including fire-and-brimstone-spouting local politicians being invited in to “inspire” the young men — with what, in many respects, appears indistinguishable from summer camp for the girls. We watch as the young women are taught to sing the official anthem of Girls State (with some of the on-camera participants grousing that the boys better be doing this kind of stuff as well), engage in coordinated applause-and-step routines to bring their energy levels up, impromptu breakdancing in the cafeteria, and considerable down time to create campaigning materials and do one another’s hair and makeup. The lack of seriousness is voiced by Emily who, with her campaign for governor floundering in the face of candidates more comfortable wielding female empowerment bromides, begins to pose uncomfortable questions to Girls State organizers about how the two concurrent events are administered. In particular, why the women are treated like second-class citizens — as a further datapoint, the Governor of Boys State participates in a swearing-in ceremony officiated by actual Missouri Governor Mike Parson, an honor not bestowed upon their female counterpart — but also why Girls State’s operating budget is only a third of what it is for the men.

The fallacy of “separate but equal” is at the heart of Girls State, and the most personally rewarding stretch finds institutionalist Emily beginning to recognize how the same status quo she’s been conditioned to uphold has been weaponized against her (that carries considerably more thematic heft to it than a pretend horse race over who gets elected fake governor). But it’s a clarity of purpose that doesn’t arrive until nearly 80% of the way through the film. Moss and McBaine borrow the aesthetics and shape of reality television, but no matter how much the filmmakers attempt to guide the narrative, highlighting the one-sidedness for viewers through smart cutaways, there’s only so much to be done if the film’s subjects have blinders on until it’s almost too late. There are encouraging developments throughout the film, including the way the young women seem to genuinely support one another even when they’re placed in direct competition and that nobody is reduced to sabotage or skullduggery just to pad their college application with a dubious accomplishment. Yet for much of its runtime, Girls State plays kind of like Boys State, only at half the intensity, with both the film as well as its subjects continuously stymied by the limitations imposed upon them. One can recognize the inequities baked into Girls State while still hoping someone like Emily will someday lose interest in winning popularity contests and apply her talents to muckraking investigative journalism instead. She might have a real future in it.

DIRECTOR: Jesse Moss & Amanda McBaine;  DISTRIBUTOR: Apple TV+;  STREAMING: April 5;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 36 min.