One of the biggest hits at Sundance and winner of the festival’s U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize in 2020, Boys State was a rare window into teenage politics at a divisive time. Directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, it showcased a week-long leadership program––sponsored annually by the American Legion and held in nearly every state––by chronicling several-hundred of Texas high school students gathering to form and choose a mock government. Outside of depicting the conference’s mechanics, Boys State showcased the diversity of Gen-Z masculinity and previewed the next generation’s thought leaders, observing a handful of intriguing subjects jockey for position and learn how to attract groups of hormonal competition onto their side of the aisle. 

Four years later, McBaine and Moss have returned to Sundance with Girls State, the proverbial, gender-swapped sequel that attempts to achieve likeminded goals. Perhaps because Boys State didn’t acknowledge this parallel sister program, Girls State is at once a chance to redeem that oversight, make an easy bid for Apple TV+ to build out a digital double feature, and offer a compelling counterpoint to the original’s testosterone-fueled endeavor. Instead of parachuting into Texas, the filmmakers––and their 30 camera operators––set up shop in Missouri. The major difference? The state scheduled both programs to happen at the same time on the same campus, inviting comparison and adding a new wrinkle into this future-building exercise. 

Like its predecessor, Girls State spends its introduction highlighting several young women from various locales with diverse backgrounds and ambitions. Over sit-down interviews and footage back home, we meet Emily, a Christian overachiever who dreams to be elected president in 2040 or else will settle as a dogged news journalist. There’s Tochi, one of few Black delegates attending the camp, who seems skeptical of the program’s messaging and how its population of girls will embrace her. There’s also Nisha, an introverted bookworm, and the Southern-twanged Brooke, two opposites in temperament and background competing head-to-head to join the state’s mock Supreme Court who, incidentally, become best friends. 

But something is different about this gathering. The girls notice it, too. As they start the week, counselors and officials issue a set of distressing rules that nobody should walk anywhere alone. The first couple of days include making bracelets, decorating cupcakes, and learning a camp song. “If the boys don’t have to do this I’m going to be pissed,” one participant says. The sentiment reverberates throughout the rest of this documentary. Why do the boys get to focus on actual policy-making while, across campus, is a bunch of free time and  fluff––girlboss empowerment, feminist mantras, and strict dress codes? 

It’s here where the documentary reaches a crossroads, where one senses friction between the movie McBaine and Moss set out to make and the one developing in front of them. As the political aspects of the program begin to take shape and the girls begin campaigning for office, the drama of those individual and collective pursuits feels slightly less important. In Boys State, the majority of drama stemmed from the anxiety of its primary subjects getting signatures and endorsements to run for office, determining strategies to win elections, and whether their authentic selves could be enough to sway peers from opposing perspectives. There was intense focus on actual platforms, and the stress of compromising one’s ideals and identities. 

Girls State doesn’t have as many of those characteristics––a shame and a benefit. Around the time McBain and Moss began shooting, the impending flip of Roe vs. Wade was making headlines. The national narrative offers a nice backdrop for the week, helping to inform the girls’ arguments––especially in a mock trial over privacy laws regarding abortion counseling––that feel imminently relevant. When a male U.S senator starts issuing his pro-life messaging in front of the boys’ delegation, it’s clear there are real structural differences between both groups. The girls receive a different, kumbaya message: “We want you to be the women who straighten other women’s crowns, not the women who point out it’s crooked.” 

McBain and Moss capture all this with an unobtrusive eye. They have a real grasp of how to capture and frame candid interactions, how to pace this kind of near-reality television drama. It doesn’t hit its ambitious stride, though, until the end, when Emily’s gubernatorial run pivots into a journalism project around the inequality of the two states. Though she’s upset about the outcome, her intrepid investigation––into each state’s funding and regulations––feels like the truer victory and best reason for documenting this whole exploration. As the girls say their emotional goodbyes, Emily feels there’s more work to do. The program, she says, “needs to teach us to combat, not prepare us for, sexism in the workplace.” In some ways, she found her own way to combat it.

Girls State premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B

No more articles