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‘Girls State’ Review: One Nation, Under Girls

In 2018, over 1,000 boys gathered in Texas for an elaborate, weeklong program aimed at students interested in politics. This meeting of teenage minds — part of a countrywide initiative sponsored by the American Legion — was captured in the Sundance hit “Boys State,” a vérité chronicle of the event, where participants are elected by their peers to different positions in government.

Considering that movie’s success, it hardly comes as a surprise that the filmmakers, Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, used their momentum to produce the follow-up “Girls State.” The directors shot the documentary in 2022 at Lindenwood University, in St. Charles, Mo., where, the movie repeatedly notes, it’s the first time that the boys and girls groups are holding their events simultaneously on the same campus.

If you are imagining coed frivolity or drama, though, think again: These motivated girls are only concerned about the boys insofar as their proximity highlights the lack of parity between their programs. We meet Emily Worthmore, one of the film’s central subjects, as she ticks off achievements. At Girls State, Emily, a conservative Christian, hopes to be elected governor, a goal she shares with the left-leaning Cecilia Bartin, who canvasses the lunchroom by shouting from a chair. Others, including Nisha Murali, eye seats on the program’s Supreme Court, which the attendees anticipate will hear an abortion case.

If the vibe of “Boys State” is that of a Young Republicans conference, the atmosphere at “Girls State” suggests a freshman orientation. By turns giddy and gutsy, the students share in communal songs, icebreakers and empowerment sessions. They seem to intuit that camaraderie goes hand in hand with political ambition, and that they shouldn’t take the curriculum, or themselves, too seriously. Here, cute selfies and résumé building receive equal attention.

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