Girls State (2024)


Girls State Review

One of the best scenes in last year’s Barbie was a quick montage giving us a sense of a world populated and run by actualized super-women. Margot Robbie’s Barbie watches as the Supreme Court (all Barbies) hear closing arguments (from a Barbie) seemingly about campaign finance reform. “This makes me emotional, and I’m expressing it. I have no difficulty holding both logic and feeling at the same time,” Lawyer Barbie says after her final point. “And it does not diminish my powers. It expands them.” It turns out that this moment was anticipated by a group of Missourian teenagers, holding hands in a circle while they affirm one another, themselves making up a Supreme Court hearing cases at Girls State. It’s one of the more impactful scenes in Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ Girls State, a documentary that can struggle to tie its young politicos to the outside world, but thrives when tying them to each other.

There’s not an immediate analogue to the collapsing political machine of America, like with the howling boys, because Girls State finds kids interested in issues over politics. Sure, there are still the conservative, Christian, overachieving glad-handers who’ve planned to be president since grade school. But they’re easily outnumbered—in GOP stronghold Missouri, no less—by progressives repping Bernie Sanders, ex-conservatives rebelling against their alt-right families and girls still figuring out what they think by valuing decisions over demagogues.

Wherever these kids currently fall in the painful process of political surgery that excises an individual’s ideas from that of their upbringing, they have shared personal stakes in the world that the boys have the privilege of never thinking about. It’s not just that Girls State was filmed as Roe v. Wade was being overruled in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, putting rights to privacy and to one’s own body at the forefront of conversations both personal and political. It’s that, by virtue of hosting two unequal political events at the same time, on the same campus, the American Legion made itself a case study in sexism—one that (at least half of) its highly informed participants weren’t going to miss.

And sometimes Girls State hits back. McBaine and Moss take eerie shots of a crowd of all-women with frozen smiles on their faces, maliciously complying, as one candidate for governor says in her speech, with the expectation to smile. A bald eagle, brought to a pep rally, frantically tries to escape its handler. But most of the commentary comes from the subjects themselves. They’re the ones keeping track of the wrongs: That they have to be on a buddy system while on campus, not the boys; that there’s a strict dress code for them, while boys walk around without their shirts off; that boys have a gym, but girls don’t; that Missouri’s governor swears in Boys’ State representative while no actual politicians meet with any Girls’ State representatives; that Boys’ State has three times the budget of Girls’ State.

The cute observation of Girls State falls away and is replaced by a scorching grassroots rebellion. Counselors dodge questions as tenacious student journalists outsmart them. The delight in activities oddly gendered—bracelet making, cupcake decorating, hand clapping—blinks out when participants realize in real time what bullshit they’ve signed up for. Didn’t they sign up to run for Attorney General? To argue cases and elect officials? Why is their challenge for the day “give two people a compliment?” It’s bracing to see that despite their ideological differences all these girls already seem more feminist than whomever planned this thing.

And the subjects themselves are just lovely. There’s an imbalance to how they’re handled — only one or two ever get any sort of larger backstory amidst larger narratives — but there are still gems that stick out: On one hand there’s Legally Blonde-like earnest-sweetness (“There’s something in the air and it’s politics”) and on another there’s simmering political seriousness that comes in two parts: One is gained from things like a handful of representative campaign speeches — the most conservative focused on rhetoric; the most progressive focused on policy — with the third candidate being the most successful, combining both. The second comes from the girls play-acting what they would do if they were in charge while, in the “real world,” a bunch of men take their rights away.

In terms of identifying this hellish torment or allowing their subjects to do the heavy lifting, Girls State thrives on compelling juxtapositions. What McBaine and Moss’ filmmaking may lack in risk-taking (and never seem as deeply convicted as the films they make), it is situated within an event that accurately reflects our current moment while suggesting what might come next. And it looks much sunnier than the boys do, thanks to these girls’ self-assured resistance against everything before them.

Watch Girls State For Free On Gomovies.

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