Taking the reins of representational government is a vital journey for all women in political leadership roles. But that campaign is especially essential for female students who are determined to improve gender equality in the present and future. The seven main girls who are fighting such disparity in the new documentary, Girls State, are confronting the ideological conflicts that have long separated them from their male counterparts.
The movie was co-directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss. The feature serves as the engaging follow-up to one of their previous documentaries, Boys State.
The male-driven documentary had its world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize. It was released on Apple TV+ that summer, after which it won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special.
Moss and McBaine garnered the acclaim for Boys State after they attended a weeklong Texas program in 2018, during which 1,000 teenage boys elected and ran a mock state government. The movie chronicled both the potential and peril of the future, including the idealism and ambition of youth, the allure of power, and the corrosive codes of masculinity.
Girls State takes a similarly structured look at a Boys State sister program in Missouri. Though the mock government programs, run by the American Legion, remain separated by gender in the state, the new film captures the first time in its 80-year history that the two coexist on the same campus – Lindenwood University, in St. Charles, about 30 miles northeast of St. Louis – at the same time, in the summer of 2022. For the boys, it’s business as usual, including attending delegate meetings and rituals blessed by real-life politicians.
The girls have a looser, less formal program, however, despite higher stakes. The girls, who hail from extremely different backgrounds across Missouri, navigate a week-long immersive experiment in American democracy, build a government from the ground up and reimagine what it means to govern.
The girls run for the program’s office, including governor and supreme court seats. At the same time, they also methodically preside over a reproductive rights case while the real-life overturning of Roe v. Wade hung in the balance.
McBaine and Moss thrive in staying embedded in chronicling the journeys of the seven girls who serve as the main characters in the documentary. One of the movie’s most charismatic candidates is Emily Worthmore. The aspiring change-maker keenly takes note of the differences between the Girls and Boys State programs. She leads one of the most noteworthy awakenings in narrowing the gap between the two programs.
Worthmore, a conservative pastor’s daughter, is determined to make her presence known, both at Girls State and on a broader national level. After announcing her plan to run for president of the United States in 2040, she is one of several grils to run for governor at the Girls State, the program’s highest office and most competitive position.
The main competition Worthmore has in the program is Faith Glasgow, who’s even less patient with societal expectations for female obedience. Several of their fellow competitors, including Brooke Taylor, Maddie Rowan and Nisha and Murali, are initially less sure about their prospects in succeeding in the program. But McBaine and Moss are such magnetic storytellers that they highlight how each girl grows their confidence over the life-affirming week they spent at the Missouri university.
Despite the differences in the girls’ heritages, faith and political beliefs, they become united in their dismay with the structure of their program. The helmers keep Girls State somewhat mysterious through the film’s first half, including the context for what the participants are expected to accomplish throughout their week at the program.
That at-times ambiguous nature reflects Worthmore and her fellow participants’ frustration over the modesty rules they must follow, which they feel limits their female empowerment. That grievance is driven by the lack of explanation over the reasoning why they must follow such rules, which their male counterparts aren’t required to engage in.
The documentary shows that those rules – which include that girls must always go outside with a buddy for safety and stay covered up – place too much emphasis on female modesty. In turn, they don’t put enough attention on actual issues, including inequalities between the programs.
Like its predecessor, Girls State benefits from strong casting. The seven teen girls who are primarily featured in the movie not only question the program’s rules, but also its – and the country’s – political proceedings. The film almost immediately becomes a star vehicle for Worthmore, who thrives as an idealized conservative.
Worthmore relentlessly stays true to her faith-based values, including her opposition on pivotal issues like abortion and gun control, but is eager to engage in non-judgmental conversations. Her dominance on screen makes the documentary both more balanced and overtly political than its predecessor.
Abortion rights and access is one of the most vital discussions that Worthmore and her peers engage in throughout the program. They arrived at the Lindenwood University campus just as the SCOTUS’ decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked to the media.
To contemplate the government’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the girls engaged in a mock supreme court case that contemplates one of the most controversial laws in Missouri’s history. The law requires any woman seeking an abortion to get counseling. As a result, some of the girls’ opinions transformed, while the others remained disparate in their judgments, but grew more compassionate to other women’s plight.
Women’s dynamics in politics, especially their ability to lead groups of all backgrounds, is powerfully showcased in Girls State. As a result, the new documentary is an engaging female-focused sequel to Boys State.
Worthmore leads her peers in the ability to not only wrestle with, but also defeat, the challenge of holding divergent positions while governing for all. Overall, the movie’s seven protagonists mix their opinions with a mature self-awareness and palpable concern on such important issues as a woman’s right to choose and gun violence.
With Girls State, McBaine and Moss’ anticipated return to the world of teenage-led politics deftly reflects on urgent issues surrounding gender equality and America’s current political landscape. Through the tenacious lens of youth, the girls’ resilience and adaptability shine through, which reveals that no closed doors are strong enough to stop them.
Girls State made its world premiere in the Premieres section at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary is scheduled to be released on April 5 by Apple TV+.