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‘Girls State’ Review: It’s Hard Not to Compare This Doc to ‘Boys State’ and That’s the Film’s Strongest Asset

When directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine left the 2020 Sundance Film Festival with the Grand Jury Prize for their documentary “Boys State,” their desire to follow it up with “Girls State” was only emboldened and considered more relevant. Now, four years later, does its quasi-sequel stand on its own?

Boys State is a week-long program with chapters across the country in which high schoolers create their own representative government, the most coveted being the position of Governor. The documentary “Boys State” focused on the 2018 program in Texas. “Girls State” travels to Missouri, capturing the state’s momentous decision to host both gendered programs on the same campus for the first time.

It would not be fair to judge “Girls State” solely on its predecessor; it is, after all, its own film with its own tone. The crew emphasized that it was important to shift its vision in a few ways, notably by focusing on students from more rural towns and offering a more macro view of the program through other storylines, including the selection of the Supreme Court judges and the political environment of 2020.

T. Griffin, the composer of both films, said he worked with directors McBaine and Moss to differentiate the films and offer a different kind of intimacy and “buoyancy” to “Girls State” while still allowing the implications of the social context to resonate.

But, as the film itself unfolds and grapples with the reality of the two programs occurring on the same campus, “Girls State” comes to the ironic, though semi unfortunate conclusion, that the girl’s program and its quality are intricately tied to the boy’s. Several times throughout the film, a select few of the main ensemble, including Emily Worthmore, Maddie Rowan and Faith Glasgow, quickly pick up on how their program is lacking in political conversation, decision-making, and even certain freedoms.

The film captures moments in which counselors emphasize what the girls can and cannot wear, and that they must always be accompanied by a “buddy.” We see the girls engage in arts and crafts, making signs for their political campaigns, using crayons and scissors, and being told to “straighten other women’s crowns.” While the program seems to strive for unity and friendship, not quite emphasized for the boys, it leads to an infantilizing image, especially for those who have seen “Boys State” and are familiar with their more aggressive and complex conversations.

This imbalance is not a fault of the film itself, as “Girls State” strives to showcase the focused, blunt, and dissatisfied girls who want more from their program, though it is interesting how much easier it is to capture intimate shots of the home life of the girls and their feelings when a program neglects to push them into more political territory. At one point, the boys admit to not having as much free time as the girls do.

The film quickly tackles two major themes, the first being the lack of women in government. This is introduced through a slightly cheesy opening credits sequence in which real images of women in government are shown, but then encircled with a colorful pencil mark around their face to drive the point home. The next major theme is abortion rights, as the film takes place when rumors of the overturning of Roe v Wade are leaked. This topic is what most of the political conversations featured in the film discuss, a fascinating parallel to “Boys State’s” emphasis on gun control.

Masculinity is marked by weapons against bodies, while femininity is marked by viewing the body as a weapon. When Worthmore talks to other girls about the lack of political conversation, another girl says it’s because women often present political issues, such as environmentalism and mental health, as bipartisan issues. While there are a variety of perspectives presented by the girls as to whether or not they are pro-choice or pro-life, the person who ultimately wins Governor is the one who delivers what Faith Glasgow deemed a “feminist manifesto,” acknowledging the greater views of sexism and unifying the girls as minorities in a field they deserve to hold power in.

Tochi Ihekona, another one of the main players in the movies, makes a joke that her friends will be sick of the ego she has developed from the program, though she feels she has “earned it.” That is ultimately “Girls State’s” greatest reason for existing, as it not only introduces another side of this democratic activity, but does so at the perfect time to highlight its inconsistencies and inequalities, giving these girls the extra opportunity for reflection and growth.

Worthmore accidentally spills her plate of food on the ground during one scene and begins to cry, a product of her accumulating stress mixed with a girl’s underlying shame at taking up space. But Worthmore is shown compassion and support, and even if she does not get her every wish, at the film’s end she devotes herself to an investigative report on the specific inequalities of the two programs: a powerful and active response to seeing a need you know you can aid.

Upon its publishing, she notices her article is re-titled “Incompatible for Comparison,” based on a line in the piece referring to what the counselors would say to deflect from having conversations about the two programs. Worthmore says, “I would’ve added a question mark,” a brilliant sentiment the film itself could resonate with, because after seeing how much the women lack (specifically a whopping $400,000 budget difference and no official governor swear-in), is it really a Girls State just yet or a girl’s attempt to make space in the boys’ state?

Apple Original Films will release “Girls State” on April 5.

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