Girls State (2024)

Brooke Taylor (holding camera) is one of the seven girls featured in Apple TV+’s “Girls State.”

‘Girls State’ gives democracy the feminine touch

   Tracy Flick lives! And there will be cupcakes! But as the “star” of “Girls State,” Emily Worthmore is much nicer and far less strident than her fictional counterpart from 1999’s “Election.” But when it comes to eagerness and ambition, Tracy may have met her match in Emily, a conservative teen from Missouri with sights set on a run for the White House in 2040. 

    First, though, she must start “small” by winning the race for governor at “Girls State,” the annual one-week experiment in self-governance in which 500 of the brightest teenage girls from the Show Me state gather near St. Louis to build a democracy from the ground up. Filmed in June 2022 by the husband-and-wife team of Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, the gathering on the campus of Lindenwood University is unique because it’s the first time Girls State and its male equivalent, Boys State, are being conducted simultaneously at the same location. 

     This could get interesting. And that was likely all the incentive the Bay Area couple needed to head east for their follow-up to 2020’s Emmy-winning “Boys State,” set in another decidedly Red State, Texas. They also lucked out on the timing, shooting in the days leading up to the Supreme Court’s controversial Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

      It’s an issue that is front and center with all seven young women spotlighted during the five-day event at which aspiring politicians are provided the opportunity to establish and implement a mock democracy, complete with party conventions and elections ranging from mayoral to legislative to the ultimate: gubernatorial.  

     Separately, a judicial system will be constructed for budding lawyers, like Brooke Taylor, Nisha Murali and Tochi Ihekona, who can argue cases that may potentially make their way before a Supreme Court selected via a high-pressure process possibly pitting friend against friend. 

    Those battles in and out of court compete for screen time with the film’s centerpiece, the pursuit of the governorship. When Tracy, er Emily, arrives on campus, she’s ebulliently overconfident, certain that her impressive resume – which includes direct involvement in numerous clubs, sports teams, and a knack for rocking a guitar – makes her a cinch to win. Any comparisons to Hillary Clinton are welcomed. Oh, she’s also a staunch Christian, the daughter of a preacher. But she wants to keep that on the down-low, as well as her conservative leanings, so as not to alienate potential voters. 

   The camera loves her, but you may not, especially early on, as she arrogantly ticks off in order her life’s goals: to become president of the United States; a broadcast journalist; and if all else fails, a rock star. But as the film progresses, exposing her vulnerabilities and a family tragedy, you’ll want to hug her, especially when the self-induced pressure becomes so intense she accidentally drops her lunch on the floor in front of everyone. The resulting embarrassment is palpable. 

    Her two chief competitors, Faith Glasgow (a former alt-right conservative) and Cecilia Bartin (a liberal feminist), further erode her dwindling self-confidence. It gets so bad that you may question Girls State’s benefit. But then, these challenges are no different than what Emily will face in the real world. So, it’s best she get her feet wet now, especially when our real-life politics grow uglier by the day. 

    While Emily’s story is front and center, McBaine and Moss also delve into the personal lives of Nisha and Tochi, two of the too-few minorities in attendance. Both are the children of immigrants who enter Girls State fearful of how they will fit in socially with all of those largely conservative white girls. You will be moved and inspired by each of them, especially Nisha and the unlikely friendship she forms with her chief rival, Brooke. 

    Leaving the most-lasting impressions are the dozens of examples of gender inequality that gnaw at the young women, as they learn how much better the boys on campus have it. They enjoy a much larger budget ($600,000 to $200,000). They also don’t have a strict dress code. Nor do they require a buddy if they decide to walk outside. There’s no outward expression of it, but it’s almost a given that the boys won’t be told how to keep it G-rated around members of the opposite sex. 

    The girls are rightfully pissed, especially when – as they put it – a bunch of old white men in Congress is dictating what women can, and can’t, do with their bodies. You’re pissed, too. Personally, after watching the testosterone-charged males in “Boys State” compared to the insightful and accepting females in “Girls State,” I think it’s time we let the ladies take over at all levels of government. 

   And given the degree of intelligence, compassion and understanding displayed by this crop of young women, one can only hope that the day of total female empowerment comes soon. Suddenly, Emily Worthmore for president in 2040 sounds like a pretty great idea. Here’s hoping it happens. 

Movie review

Girls State

Rated: Not rated

Featuring: Emily Worthmore, Faith Glasgow, Brooke Taylor, Cecilia Bartin, Nisha Murali, Maddie Rowan and Tochi Ihekona

Directors: Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss

Runtime: 93 minutes

Where: Streaming on Apple TV+ beginning April 5

Grade: B+

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