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Girls State

One girl was asked about a significant Supreme Court case and picked “the one with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.”  Someone thought it was a good idea to have the opening night icebreaker activities include a bracelet station and cupcake decorating. And yet, the worst political judgment in “Girls State,” the documentary follow-up to the award-winning “Boys State,” is the decision of the Governor of Missouri to appear at the ceremonial swearing-in for the high school boys’ gathering, ignoring the girls’ meeting at the same time and in the same location. It is not the only disparity between the two programs. 

Boys State, sponsored since the 1930s by the American Legion, and Girls State, sponsored since the 1940s by the American Legion Auxiliary, are programs in every state but Hawaii that bring high school students together for a week to create a government, including appointment of a Supreme Court and election of a governor. Like its predecessor, this film is perceptive about these impressive young women who display dedication, seriousness of purpose, and genuine public-spiritedness. It also shows us some endearing naivete (one says she wants to be President of the United States, a broadcast journalist, and a rock star), and their embarrassingly accurate imitation of what they have absorbed from careful observation of some of the failures of our national politics. At least a few of the participants figured out that teachers may tell you a candidate gets more votes by showing competence and reliability and a forthright statement of policies and priorities, but they have seen they can do better with a rousing speech about how right and powerful and deserving the voters are.

This film was made in the spring of 2022, just after the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft decision in the Dobbs case, showing that the Court planned to overturn the right to abortion, but before the decision was announced. Understandably, this was a topic of intense interest for the teenage girls gathering to debate the most complicated and controversial issues of policy and politics. Indeed, one of the film’s highlights is the extremely sophisticated and thoughtful challenge to Missouri law requiring counseling before an abortion that is the issue in Girls State’s sole Supreme Court case, expertly argued by two young women and thoughtfully considered by seven robed “justices.” One of the film’s most vibrant characters, Tochi Ihekona, from an immigrant Nigerian family, ably argues in support of the law, contrary to her personal views. 

The film begins some historic photos of important political gatherings, each featuring just one woman, including Justice Sandra Day O’Connor with her colleagues and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the Oval Office. And then the first speech we hear from the Girls State podium frames the issue in the present. One of the young women tells the attendees that she wants to be like Glynis Johns in “Mary Poppins,” calling for women’s suffrage in a “soft, fluttery voice” that “exudes strength.” “She is powerfully feminine,” the speaker continues, cautioning her fellow participants to resist the temptation to get loud. 

There is a strong and pervasive sense of solidarity in the large group. They may be competitive, but they are still sorting through their views. They listen respectfully to each other, in one case while brushing and braiding one girl’s hair. “My dream scenario is kumbaya,” one says, as they seek a broader consensus, in contrast to the boys, many of whom who were more focused on politics than governance. The girls are sensitive to unfairness, increasingly impossible to ignore in this first-time combination of the boys’ and girls’ programs at the same time and place. The boys are allowed to go shirtless while the girls have a dress code that was outmoded forty years ago. And then there are the cupcakes and being ignored by the governor. A disappointed candidate triumphs as an investigative journalist, asking tough questions despite being told that the two programs were “incompatible for comparison,” and coming up with some startling revelations showing that comparison was not only compatible but long overdue. It is genuinely thrilling to see their integrity, passion, and conviction that they can and must do better. They've got my vote.

 

 

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at RogerEbert.com.

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Girls State movie poster

Girls State (2024)

95 minutes

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