Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss capture Gen Z’s politics and ambitions in “Girls State”

A favorite out of Sundance 2024 and the 2024 True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri, the documentary Girls State releases on Apple TV+ on Friday, April 5. A follow-up to filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ 2020 film Boys State, Girls State focuses on the 2022 Missouri Girls State session, which took place on the campus of Lindenwood University in St. Charles. The film follows seven girls from around the state as they vie for elected positions, such as governor, attorney general, and seats on the Supreme Court. This session was also the first time in 80 years that both Boys State and Girls State sessions took place on the same campus at the same time. Couple that with this session taking place mere weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and you’ve got a fascinating case study in American politics with Gen Z at the forefront.

We sat down for a chat with McBaine and Moss to discuss what drew them to the Boys State and Girls State programs as documentary subjects, how they found their key characters, and how the real-world political climate impacted how they view this film.

What drew you both to Girls State and Boys State programs as a documentary subject?

Jesse Moss: I think we were  just trying to make sense of our political condition and the future of our country. Is democracy doomed? Where can we figure out how to work together and talk to each other? Boys State and Girls State programs bring young people together with different politics and say, “Can you talk to each other?” We thought, here’s a laboratory to explore this question with this new generation: Gen Z. These programs are really built around this idea of civil discourse. Look at Congress, look at the presidential contest, look at how people talk, and contemporary politics seems so uncivil. We are also parents. We’re married and have two teenage daughters. We think a lot about how young people are our political future. What are they inheriting from us? How are they doing things differently? Boys State worked out in ways we never could have imagined, just finding an incredible story. We were concerned about following that up, but also felt compelled to try with Girls State. We knew we were going to leave the state of Texas and weren’t sure where we would go.

How did you go about finding the subjects for Girls State this time around? 

Amanda McBaine: The session itself is only eight days, so it goes so fast that there’s no way we could have cast on the spot. We knew that from Boys State. We spent almost five months talking to hundreds of kids that were headed to the session that year with the help of the program leadership. Anybody who wanted to talk to us, we talked to them. And those were fascinating conversations. Honestly, I think a sociologist should interview everybody headed to every Boys State and every Girls State session every year for the rest of time, because it really gives you a portrait of what kids are thinking about. Gen Z, right now, is giant. There’s 8 million of them that are going to be newly voting in the fall. They’re really interesting. They don’t really identify quite so cleanly in Democrat and Republican quite yet, and that’s the beauty of being 17. I think you’re still flexible and still elastic and still figuring it out. But we needed some things for the people we were going to follow closely. Jesse likes to say the girls who we cast kind of cast themselves in some ways. When they showed up in these conversations, they were so obviously passionate about politics and very smart and very ambitious, but also vulnerable in ways. They were willing to share their emotional journey with us, even in those initial conversations. Just what were they worried about? What were they thinking about? What did they think about girlhood in 2022? What did they think about certain issues that affected girls more than boys in politics? I think that we needed that person who could kind of both share their smarts, but also their heart with us. And that’s not everybody. And we needed them to not change when the camera was pointed at them. And again, that’s not everybody. So it took us a little bit of time, but it was pretty clear with those seven that we ended up following.

Both films are set in relatively conservative states. Was that an intentional choice when you were going about finding [the setting for] Girls State? Did that impact the way that you approached this film? 

JM: In a way, that’s not the design. Texas we went to first because we read about Texas Boys State. So we went to Texas. Texas is an interesting state. It’s maybe more of a purple state or a red state now. But it’s a big and complicated state. That was important. We auditioned some blue states. We looked at California, our home state. We looked at Massachusetts. We were drawn to Missouri. It is really a red state, but it’s also contradictory. It’s got Josh Hawley and Cori Bush and everything in between. And it’s got big cities and rural communities and suburbs and sort of everything that America has. I think we were sure that the program was big enough to represent that diversity, and that was important. The boys in Texas were conservative, but I think the program in Missouri is actually more left of center and not conservative. So that was a surprise to us. And I think, in a way, the story is flipped. We have as our protagonist Emily, a young woman who identifies as a conservative and is Christian and right of center, negotiating a more progressive space. And that’s the opposite of what we encountered in Boys State. So that was interesting to us. I think we were also interested in the abortion politics of Missouri. We knew that it was a trigger law state and that the Dobbs decision, which leaked a week, or a matter of days, before we went to the session, would be looming over their lives and in a significant way. And, I mean, that would have been felt in any Girls State anywhere. But certainly from our conversations with the girls we were meeting and casting, we knew it was on their minds. So I think that’s all of the reasons why we were drawn to Missouri.

How has the current political climate impacted the film as you were editing and finding those plot threads? I know the film ends with the news that Roe v. Wade was overturned six days after the session ended.

AM: I’m not sure I have an answer where it’s consciously a choice to do this, that, or the other thing. I do think about our films, even on Tuesday, watching the Supreme Court session and having both sides of that case being argued by a woman—the Solicitor General [Elizabeth B. Prelogar] and Erin Hawley, Josh Hawley’s wife—it resonates with me. I feel there’s a resonance and a timeliness. On the other hand, I feel like a lot of what our film is about is evergreen. Female representation in politics has been an issue for a long time. We’re still stuck at 28 percent in Congress, which in 2024 still blows my mind. We’ve never had a female president. All these things that I’m exhausted by. But I’m also energized when I hang out with these kids who are like, Yeah, why? During the edit, I think there were many moments where abortion was in the news, again and again. So yes, our film is timely, but I think it’s also got issues that won’t ever stop being timely.

JM: What was interesting in Boys State is that we had big debates in the edit room about Trump and invoking Trump’s name, which the boys did sometimes. Then his name is only mentioned once in the film. But we were trying to figure out, How directly do we need to engage the wider world? Certainly the issues are there, but Trump himself sort of occupies a lot of air airtime and oxygen. So we didn’t feel like we needed to devote more to him. He was sort of offstage when we were filming. But I think we all know what we were sailing into. It was hard to imagine in 2018, when we shot Boys State, that things could get worse. And yet, we know that they have gotten worse and they are potentially headed to an even darker, worse place. So we felt a sense of urgency and an imperative to find a way, with this film, to bring people to a political conversation that wasn’t traumatizing and wasn’t toxic, but that wasn’t naïve either—that was hopeful. I think we have to imagine a different political future before we can realize it. And I think these girls help us imagine that. Sad to say, they model for us adults the political behavior that we need from grownups. And if they can show us the way, hopefully we can find the way too. I think that’s what we felt, but as you know from watching the film, these girls know exactly what is happening in the world that they’re living in. They see it at Girls State, because they see Boys State getting more resources, getting the governor of Missouri swearing in [the boys’] governor and not [the girls’] governor.

AM: I think that’s reality. That’s the reality of our country. Yes, there’s hope. Yes, there’s fear. Both those things are real. I think teenagers are particularly good at holding those things at the same time and talking about them sometimes even in the same sentence. Maybe that’s why we keep returning to making films about young people. I find them to be so honest about their feelings in terms of all the excitement they have and dreams they have, about a future for themselves. In Emily’s case, [it was] running for president, but at the same time [she is] talking with a lot of nuance and understanding about the limitations and the fight that it’s going to take for her to get there. I love that about this age group and generally I love how flexible they are and open to listening to other people. They’re not going to just immediately put you in a box.

It’s surprising to see how much that happens throughout the film. So many conversations are along the lines of, “I recognize your viewpoint and I’m not trying to shut you out,” while actually having those political conversations that people say they want to have. It’s refreshing to see that happen. 

AM: I also think it’s interesting that there’s this trope out there that young people cancel people more quickly than adults do. In fact, what we saw anecdotally and with our kids, is that it’s a little bit the opposite. You may get canceled eventually, but there is a willingness to create community, at least at this Girls State that we saw. There was a real desire for connection and bridge-building. Maybe part of that was the emotional legacy of COVID and just how excited everybody was to gather together. Part of it was just counter-programming to the toxicity of hyper-polarized politics of the adults, and maybe some of it was girlhood, too. But it was super refreshing to be around.

JM: I think, for us, left-of-center documentary filmmakers from San Francisco, Emily is a test of the proposition that we can identify with, care for, and root for somebody who doesn’t share our political beliefs. Instead we look for those points of connection. I think that the discovery of the story of the film is that most of us see the investigative work that Emily does as a journalist, and we really admire it, maybe regardless of our politics. It helps us overcome some reluctance to see her as a full person. She’s different from our protagonist in Boys State, Steven Garza, who was really kind of easy for most of us to root for. Emily is different, but we did a screening in Chicago, and she was there. We had some elected officials who are probably left of center, though no one was asked to identify their party affiliation. It was more about women in office. And I thought, Wow, this is what we hope for with the film. Not just in the story we tell in the movie, but in the conversations we can create around the movie with the girls in the film and people we bring to the conversation. It’s an embodiment of collective spirit, a civil discourse, and a desire to share in points of connection and not sowing division.

AM: And common ground is actually kind of a big deal. What do we have in common? One of the things with Emily, for instance, whose politics are definitely not my own, [is that] she does believe in elections. She’s not an election denier. She believes in facts. She wants to be a journalist. So I think that there are certain commonalities that we can find pretty quickly that are super essential to the civic religion of being Americans. I think these spaces where you can actually have those moments of connection with people who are different from you are pretty critical. We’re actually getting into an emergency situation where I think we need to build those bridges a lot and quickly, and particularly with this younger group.

Another thread that you talk about is Emily’s investigative piece about the inequalities between Boys State and Girls State, which ties everything together in the end. At what point did you realize that you were going to have to include some part of the Boys State session that was happening concurrently?

AM: We always knew they were going to be there. We actually had no idea when we were going to see them or if we were going to see them. We knew that, at some point, they were going to overlap for a joint session to listen to one of the speakers who was brought in. I think that was Claire McCaskill, who came to talk to everybody. That was exciting because she’s retired at this point, so she really was free to give a great speech. But up to that point they were kept pretty separated. That being said, people from each session were talking to each other on their phones.

JM: We really wanted to give the girls their due, not to make a movie that was a comparison, even though we have Boys State that exists as a standalone film. We were very focused on our girls, but they led us there in conversation and the questions they asked. Ultimately in Emily’s investigation, they have this convening on the field where they have a party together. I think it allowed them, and us, to understand the bigger message of the film, which is that this system of structural inequality exists, and that prevents women from gaining more political power and equal power in our system. It was shocking to me, and maybe it shouldn’t have been, to discover that Girls State has less funding. It’s one thing for the governor to swear in the governor of Boys State, but to realize that they just have less to work with—why is that okay? I know why it is. It’s because these are actually separate programs, and the Boys State program has a legacy advantage from men and their wealth that helps to fund the program that the girls program does not have. So, is the answer for the program to pool resources? That’s the trajectory the programs are headed toward. The classroom instruction now is co-ed, and I think that’s a great direction. As Steven Garza says in Boys State, “is the future People’s State?” Maybe. I think it’s been good for us and our project that these programs are spaces where we can look at boys and masculinity and girls and girlhood. But for our sake as a country, should they remain separate? I’m not sure. I think, no question, they should have equal resources, equal funding, and equal opportunity.

The film is now headed for wide release on Apple TV+ on April 5. What excites you most about this film reaching a wider audience and getting out to the people? 

AM: It’s kind of an abstraction, I’ll be honest with you. I mean, I don’t even know how many people are out there. When you’re not there in the room to clock everybody’s faces, you just don’t know. This was true going all the way back to releasing films on PBS television, which is a pretty wide audience. You just don’t know. I’d love to talk with all those folks. It’s been nice to be in those rooms. For example, at True/False, there was what looked to be maybe a 10-year-old girl who came up to ask a question in the Q&A with our subjects, who are all now 19 or 20. To have that moment is so gratifying, edifying, and beautiful. The representation of female leadership in this film that we’ve made already had an effect on this 10-year-old who watched. So my hope is that young kids can watch this film—maybe with their parents, maybe not—and have those conversations. Use the film as a text to have whatever conversation you want, whether it’s about polarization, women’s rights, female representation in politics, or whether it’s just about girlhood and how hard girls are on themselves. Whatever it is, I hope that people watch the movie and enjoy it. It’s very funny, I think. Fun is part of, again, those two truths that the teenagers can hold. There is despair, but there’s also a lot that’s legitimately funny going on. So to me, that’s part of life. I hope people experience all of that with our movie. I hope they watch it, too.

What’s one thing you hope folks take away from Girls State when they get to see it? 

JM: I would say one message is that democracy is not a spectator sport. I love that these girls throw themselves into this process and they risk defeat and they don’t sit on the sidelines. They raise their voices. They find their voices. I think that’s an instructive lesson for all of us. Even if we’re not teenage girls, if we’re middle-aged men like myself, who prefer to hide behind the camera or sit in the back of the room. I think it’s great to see these women just be leaders. And we need to see more models of female leadership so we can be a better society.

Girls State releases on Apple TV+ on Friday, April 5. Boys State is currently available on Apple TV+.


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