The list of accomplishments high school student Emily Worthmore reels off early in “Girls State” sounds impressive at first. Then it becomes a bit concerning. It’s not that the personable teen from suburban St. Louis has padded her resume — hardly. It’s that her list has the feeling of a too tightly wound drive to hit the right milestones on the way to being, as she hopes, the president in 2040. “Every election I’ve put myself in, I’ve won,” she says, “since fourth grade.”
So it comes as no surprise that Worthmore is among three young women featured in the Sundance-debuting documentary who have set their sights on the governorship of Missouri Girls State. For their engaging female-focused followup to 2020’s Texas-set “Boys State,” co-directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss traveled to the Show Me State in June of 2022 to show us the American Legion Auxiliary’s annual program for high school girls, which brings in delegates from big cities and rural burgs alike.
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In a rich twist, Missouri Boys State is taking place on the same college campus: Lindenwood University, in St. Charles, about 30 miles northeast of St. Louis. That this is the first time in their long histories that the programs are being held at the same time and same place provides the film a pointed subplot about gender parity — political, cultural and fiscal.
Five hundred girls from across Missouri arrive to campus amid the red, white and blue bunting and crepe-paper rolls. Divided into the Federalist and Nationalist parties, they’ll soon begin building a government. There will be judges and representatives, platforms and positions, glad-handing and some cautious debating. Near the end of the week, a governor will be elected.
In addition to Worthmore, Cecilia Bartin and Faith Glasgow are also campaigning for the state’s top post. Glasgow has an incisive cadence and clear-eyed resolve that, at first, may rankle. (Yes, she knows.) In short order, her passion for issues and her attuned B.S. meter become admirable. Bartin’s final campaign speech, a decidedly feminist one, makes it clear she knows how to read and move a room.
Although at times strategic, none of the young women the filmmakers (and their squad of female cinematographers and sound recordists) trailed is cynical. Good thing, given the current state of our union. All of them appear to wrestle with the challenge of holding divergent positions while governing for all. “I’m running on bipartisanship,” Worthmore, the self-described conservative and child of a pastor, says to a constituent. Nor are the women unquestioningly earnest or naive.
Even the upbeat Tochi Ihekona, who says that her dream scenario for her fellow delegates would be to join in a circle singing “Kumbaya,” knows to temper her optimism. “I haven’t experienced any microaggressions,” she says, her braids hanging down, her smile warm. Then she adds, still smiling, “Maybe I have.” The daughter of Nigerian immigrants wants to be Attorney General.
The film’s seven protagonists are the result of McBaine and Moss’s broad and deep interview process. Demographically diverse, the women are immensely watchable and touchingly articulate. They often mix their opinions with a mature self-awareness and palpable concern. Climate change, gun violence, a woman’s right to choose are some of the issues that arise repeatedly.
Friendships develop between seemingly contrasting characters. “This is my girlfriend,” the liberal-leaning Maddie Rowan says handing Worthmore her phone to share a photo. “She’s pretty,” Worthmore says and calls up a photo on her own phone of her best friend. As the campaigns heat up, Rowan becomes a steadfast supporter of her new friend.
Buoyant, rural kid Brooke Taylor and socially shy, policy nerd Nisha Murali hit it off early in the selection process for the Supreme Court. So, when they must vie for the same seat, the outcome is going to be ouchy — for them but also for those of us rooting for them as justice hopefuls and as friends.
During an assembly, a featured speaker tells the gathered, “We want you to be the women who straighten other women’s crowns, not the women who point out it’s crooked.” It’s a sentiment that is compassionate if corny and not likely to be what the guys are hearing over on their part of the college campus.
A friend of Maddie’s attending Boys State shares a video of one of its guest speakers talking about Roe v. Wade and abortion. “This is murder…” he tells the auditorium, strutting back and forth across the stage. “Life begins at conception.”
The impending fate of Roe v. Wade hangs over the “Girls State.” A few weeks before Girls State convened, news came of the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion on Dobbs v. Jackson. Shortly after the delegates headed home, the decision overturned a woman’s right to an abortion.
Early in the week, attendees began noticing the discrepancies between their Girls State experience and that of the Boys State fellas, one of the most substantive being the more engaged, rigorous political education the guys seem to be receiving. In a revealing (and fun) coda to the elections, Worthmore begins investigating the gap between the two programs by following the money.
How some of the young leaders in “Girls State” not only handle but also leverage their disappointments provides one of the documentary’s richest lessons. “Resilience” may be an overused word these days, but the practice of it turns out to be vital to personal growth and political wisdom.
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