Tochi Ihekona is featured n "Girls State."

Tochi Ihekona is featured n "Girls State." Credit: Apple TV+

DOCUMENTARY "Girls State"

WHERE Streaming on Apple TV+

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This documentary follows the teenage participants in the weeklong Girls State conference, held at a university campus in St. Charles, Missouri, just outside of St. Louis.

The program, sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary, offers the high school girls the experience of an immersive mock democracy. The participants elect a Supreme Court, a governor and other officials, and get a crash course in how the U.S. system is supposed to work.

“Girls State” arrives on Apple TV+ from the filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, the same directors behind the earlier movie “Boys State,” which told the story of the boys' version of this program through the prism of an Austin, Texas, conference.

MY SAY When thinking about the whole American experiment, nearly 250 years in, it can seem hard to find reasons for optimism. But “Girls State” offers a welcome and necessary helping of it.

It's heartening to encounter the engaged young citizens featured here, people from varying backgrounds united by their desire to make their voices heard.

The movie shows friendships forming across party lines and earnest debates over hot-button issues, especially abortion, with the session taking place just before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022. We see campaign speeches built around a variety of platforms and the sort of good, old-fashioned politicking required to get yourself elected to office.

Moss and McBaine have an eye for compelling subjects: There's Emily Worthmore, a self-described conservative launching an unlikely campaign for governor; Tochi Ihekona, from an immigrant family, who becomes the attorney general; and several others, all with their own affecting backstories.

That's not to suggest the movie offers a Pollyanna vision of the political process, without recognizing some hard truths.

Through candid and revealing interviews we learn about the self-esteem concerns and other personal issues that the girls try to work through over the course of the session.

The filmmakers smartly orient “Girls State” around another of the most American of themes: deeply rooted inequality. The girls become attuned to the inequities in their own program, because they're sharing the Lindenwood University campus with the Missouri Boys State session.

It grows apparent that they're being held to a different set of standards and expectations, in terms of the rules that they have to follow (such as always having a chaperone and dressing conservatively), the relative budgets of each program, the ability to really focus on the issues as opposed to other distractions, and more.

Examining those differences and trying to affect change: that becomes the cause everyone rallies around, no matter their differences. 

The movie finds its power in that picture of young people believing that their voices matter, being unwilling to take no for an answer, and injecting a measure of hope and idealism into a fundamentally cynical process.

BOTTOM LINE If you're looking to feel just a little bit better about the next generation of U.S. leadership, check out “Girls State.”

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