‘Girls State,’ ‘Boys State’ and Democracy Through the Eyes of Teenagers

Documentaries about the American political system are legion, and grow every week. You can bet we’ll be seeing dozens more by the time this year’s presidential election rolls around. But “Boys State” (Apple TV+), the 2020 documentary directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, came at government from a different and very refreshing angle. That film chronicles a few participants in the Boys State program run by the American Legion in Texas and every other state except Hawaii. It’s an immersive mock government approach, designed to give rising high school seniors a taste of campaigns, diplomacy and the structure of American government.

“Boys State” is charming for a few reasons. The participants are terrific onscreen, but more important, their relative youth means even the more politically savvy are still balancing — and in some cases, clinging to — an idealism and optimism about the American democratic process. A week isn’t enough to turn anyone into a hard-bitten cynic; instead, it feels like we, the adults in the audience, are the ones learning lessons, being reminded of what we hope, or wish, our system could be.

To my delight, McBaine and Moss followed up this year with “Girls State” (Apple TV+), this time set at the Missouri Girls State in 2022. (Here’s my colleague Natalia Winkelman’s full review.) That year, Missouri’s Girls State and Boys State took place on the same college campus, though they’re separated, with little contact between the two groups.

I initially expected “Girls State” to mirror “Boys State,” but it’s a whole different animal and, I think, maybe an even better movie. For one, filming just happened to coincide with the week following the leaked draft of what would ultimately be the Dobbs decision, which struck down Roe v. Wade. The program’s girls, many from small Missouri towns, seem genuinely diverse politically — and that means that matters like abortion law and bodily autonomy are frequent points of discussion.

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