Remember the acclaimed 2020 documentary Boys State? It gave us a behind-the-scenes look at a weeklong summer program in Texas where politically-minded teen boys set up mock elections and government. Well, filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine are taking us back for a girls’ version with their 2022 follow-up, Girls State.
Filmed in Missouri during the summer of 2022, Girls State has the accidental good fortune of timing. The cameras were rolling just as the leaked Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade was shaking things up politically across America. Talk about eventful summer camp!
Girls State has actually been around almost as long as Boys State, starting up in the late 1930s. Both are sponsored by the American Legion veterans group to teach kids about politics and leadership. But here’s the kicker – even though they’ve coexisted for 80+ years, the Girls and Boys State programs have always been completely separate…until now.
In a sneaky smart move, Moss and McBaine filmed the first ever session where Boys and Girls State were held jointly on the same campus. So while the girls and guys still did their own things in different rooms, for the first time they’re brushing shoulders at meals and in the dorms. The filmmakers use this unique circumstance to spotlight questions around whether the programs really provide equal opportunities for the budding young politicians.
Through Girls State’s intimated glimpses of Boys State events, we start to see some glaring contrasts emerge when it comes to how the girls are treated. Hint: it seems Boys still State some key advantages. But the girls certainly aren’t backing down without a fight. Let the debates begin!
Capturing the Action, Questioning the Process
Moss and McBaine have definitely perfected their observational documentary style. Girls State unspools with a relaxed pacing, letting us soak up the atmosphere. The filmmakers blend fly-on-the-wall glimpses of the mock government sessions with one-on-one interviews.
In the interviews, we get thoughtful reflections from a diverse lineup of girls representing different political leanings. From ambitious conservatives to progressive firebrands and shy moderates, the range of personalities clicks. We also see enough everyday scenes to feel invested in the featured players as actual teenagers, not just debate soundbites.
The vérité footage also allows for plenty of sly social commentary…if you’re paying attention. Moss and McBaine draw out the gender imbalance through subtle visual cues. Notice how the camera lingers on the girls having to double up on campus walks or polls their puzzled reactions to infantilizing group activities. No heavy-handed narration needed – the images speak volumes.
But the boldest filmmaking gambit is embedding the cameras amidst the first-ever Boys and Girls State twin billing. This tense dance of separation and overlap, independence and inequality shapes the context. Seeing the striking differences in how the programs operate prompts the girls themselves to start questioning the very system they’re there to embrace. And once they find their voices, watch out!
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Meet the Players – Idealists, Rebels, and Questioners
The girls chosen as central characters give us a mini-spectrum of political perspectives. On the conservative end, there’s Emily – the classic overachieving “Tracy Flick” type (remember Reese Witherspoon in Election?). With her blonde hair and pastor’s daughter vibe, Emily just oozes competitive intensity. She’s already got her eye on the big prize: the White House, circa 2040.
Trying to rain on Emily’s inaugural parade is her ideological opposite, Faith. If Emily is Tracy Flick, then Faith is the alt-girl Daria, heavily sarcastic. She rebelled hard against her own military family’s rigid conservatism. Now Faith uses debate as battleground, pipe bombs of logic her weapon.
On the progressive front, we’ve got Bernie bro Maddie. She’s the only openly gay governor candidate, proudly repping democratic socialism. Bubbly in personality but fierce in conviction, Maddie lends an inclusive optimism. She’s flanked by Cecilia, whose Girls State confessionals take on the tone of a protest speech. Cecilia seems to view everything through an intersectional feminist lens.
As for the more cautious centrists, there’s appealing Brooke. She’s an aware moderate trying to reconcile hometown conservatism with inner social liberal leanings. Brooke lands a spot on the mock Supreme Court, hoping logic prevails. Also seeking the sanity of the judicial branch is Nisha. She’s a shy bookworm looking to boost her confidence – if she can just get past the audition!
Racial diversity gets some focus via Tochi, a graceful and whip-smart daughter of Nigerian immigrants. Eloquent yet guarded in demeanor, Tochi provides nuanced perspectives. She also calls out the awkwardness of well-meaning but oblivious cultural questions from her white peers.
With cast of characters primed for debate clash, let the awkward bonding begin! Seeing tensions rise yet connections form among this cross-section of girls makes for drama and insight. Their contrasting motivations will surely be put to the test.
Debates and Awakenings – Questioning the Powers That Be
With the Supreme Court decision leaked just weeks before Girls State kicks off, abortion rights become a hot topic. The mock court case on Missouri’s abortion restrictions prompts passionate arguments. Emily and Cecilia face off in one heated exchange on reproductive privacy. While they find little common ground, there’s a mutual respect as they grill each other on inconsistencies.
The conservative girls seem united on restricting abortion access, though a few show openness to exemptions. The liberals advocate loudly for healthcare freedom, framing restrictions as control over women’s bodies. Others land somewhere in between – personally against abortion but unwilling to impose beliefs. The debates, while tense, stay fairly thoughtful.
Gun rights also stir up a polarized discussion. After yet another school shooting, the Second Amendment takes on grave urgency. Emily argues forcefully to keep gun access intact, while the progressives push back just as hard for gun control reforms. No solutions seem forthcoming, but the resolve is palpable on both sides.
While political issues spark divides, something else unites the girls – a growing outrage over unequal treatment. Early on, they bristle at strict dress codes and buddy system policies absent for the boys. But as Girls State goes on, deeper inequities emerge. They notice the boys having meetings with elected officials, running more organized campaigns, and taking part in immersive legislative reenactments.
The girls endure flimsier sessions focused on smiling more as empowerment. Boys State clearly gets more funding and serious engagement. The girls start to see tokenism in the cheerleading for future woman leaders when current opportunities lag so far behind the guys. And they increasingly voice frustration over the mixed messaging.
Ironically, the program intended to inspire political involvement leaves the girls questioning the powers that be. In finding their voices about dress codes and sexism, they take the first steps in asserting their authentic political voices as well. The contradictions awaken the rebel spirit.
In fact, the friendships and understanding forged across divides might prove the most empowering result. Emily’s confidence catches Faith’s eye; the two sparring partners come to hold seeds of admiration for each other’s conviction behind opposing ideologies. Maddie embraces Tochi’s difference of experience, finding connection in mutual openness.
The debates rage on, but now new generations can envision how to argue passionately – yet govern progresssively.
Playing Politics, For Real
Finally, the real competition kicks in! The girls get to showcase their leadership skills through the mock trial and election centerpieces of Girls State.
First comes the Supreme Court showdown on abortion rights. Emily and Cecilia wind up on opposing legal counsels for the hearing over Missouri’s abortion restrictions. No surprise there. We feel the tense thrill as they try swaying the justices, who pepper both sides with tough questions.
The moderator role allows Emily to demonstrate precision and quick thinking, while Cecilia’s impassioned personal stories highlight healthcare realities. In the end, the justices narrowly vote to uphold abortion access as protected privacy. But the Debate Club atmosphere suggests minds and votes could have gone either way.
Soon attention shifts to the main event: the gubernatorial race. Here’s where the documentary captures that perfect storm of the political process – chaos, strategy, dirty tricks, shifting alliances. Emily, Faith, and Maddie all throw their hats in the ring, scrambling for votes. At first, Emily’s favor seems assured by her slick posters and polished speeches.
But the odds change when Faith starts questioning why Emily is hiding her conservatism from moderate voters. Faith also rallies progressives with her convert’s passion for liberal policies. Maddie manages to win over undecideds with her bridge-building message. In the end, Maddie ekes out a win in the year’s biggest upset. Underdog status counts for something!
Throughout the dishy election drama, we watch the mock state legislature handle several bills on healthcare, gun control, and education budgets. The cooperation looks iffy at first, with both parties stubbornly camped out.
But oddly enough, the tight gubernatorial race seems to soften partisan lines on policy. Building relationships through campaigns leads to building consensus in the chambers. Compromise gives way to progress. The Girls State dream lives, however messily!
Changed Minds, Changing Politics
Part of what makes Girls State compelling is tracking how the clash of views reshapes perspectives. We witness real transformations in the featured girls over this brief yet intense week.
Take Emily. The timid conservative slowly sheds her reluctance to showcase true political colors as girls embrace her confidence. And she develops an admiration for how fully Faith owns liberal beliefs despite backlash. Their mutual passion for civic involvement bridges divide.
Faith, for her part, gains insight into complex personal factors behind staunch pro-life views. She sees assumption and judgment, even on the left, as roadblocks to progress. There’s power in focusing discourse on policy over identity.
The shy girls also come out of their shells. Anxiety-prone Nisha finds herself in a court debate almost by chance – and then just shines. The experience gives her a taste for more. Brooke likewiseimals threaded. She learns to reconcile personal beliefs with hometown ties, gaining courage from the girls’ support.
Maddie demonstrates how optimism and inclusion can overcome long odds and shake up the establishment. Her governor win proves outsiders can find open doors. But while the elections themselves have fairytale endings, the bigger revelations around inequality leave a bittersweet aftertaste.
Many girls exit the program energized yet sobered by limits hiding behind the hype. Tochi especially notes gaps between real opportunities and empty exhortations to smile for the sisterhood. But this very realization feeds new passion to push for authentic change from within. Disillusionment awakens motivation.
The stage is now set for tomorrow’s women leaders to take the game to a whole new level. Girls State plants the seeds to harvest real power down the road.
The Future is Female (and Still Fighting)
How does Girls State stack up as a follow-up doc? While it shares the immersive political microcosm approach of Boys State, the focus on gender inequality gives this one a more purposeful edge. Boys State now feels like an origin tale, the female-centric sequel moving the story forward.
The timing of the Roe v. Wade context proves auspicious, lending an almost dystopian weight. We sense the girls’ dawning awareness of freedoms soon to be revoked in the “real” world. Their debates take on deeper meaning as fantasies of political control collide with its realities.
Ultimately, Girls State carries a more activist spirit. We not only peek behind the political curtain, but watch many girls decide to grab it and expose flaws hidden by pomp. The documentary frames their questioning of unequal treatment as a simple revelation of injustice, not radical uprising. Their rebellion stems naturally from promises betrayed and potential restricted.
The portrait of budding leadership isn’t all rosy, but still leaves us cautiously hopeful. Echoes of political harmony suggest even polarization might someday ease. And the girls practice using privilege to elevate marginalized voices. Sure, they make missteps, but show willingness to self-reflect.
No doubt obstacles await in the trenches. But seeing this forward march of capable, dedicated young women made even more battle-ready by the program’s own shortcomings – that’s an inspiration. The path to power may not be pretty or smooth, but they’re ready to pave it. Where it leads feels more promising than Boys State dared dream.
Girls State delivers as an engaging deeper dive into the political leadership factory of a long-running program, using the inspired setting of simultaneous Girls and Boys State events to spotlight systemic gender inequality. The observational approach immerses us in the ideological sparring and coming-of-age stories of several impressive teenage girls. Tracking their questioning of norms, bonding across divides, and gaining awareness of their own fledgling power makes for an insightful watch. A slight over-emphasis on one main character dilutes depth, but rousing moments of awakened activism carry it through. In the end, Girls State insists the future will be what we make it - and dares a new generation to shape it.
- Compelling observational style puts viewers in the moment
- Timely insight into gender inequality in politics
- Inspiring personal growth arcs for featured girls
- Captures optimism and activism of Gen Z engagement
- Strong diversity of ideological perspectives represented
- Moving themes of unity and using privilege for good
- Imbalance in attention given to some profiled girls
- Format of Girls State program itself left unclear
- Exploration of political issues can feel surface-level
- Oversimplifies solutions to complex ideological divides
- Score and editing manipulation undercuts vérité approach