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Girls State Review: Who Runs the World?

Girls take selfies in the Apple TV+ documentary film Girls State

Girls State is an empowering and timely documentary that uses the Girls State program to discuss society’s most pressing political issues.

The ‘Girls State’ program runs every year in America and gives young people the opportunity to campaign for office, devise their own government, and develop their own society to deal with the country’s most urgent political matters and give young voices the platform to develop into the leaders of tomorrow. The 2020 documentary Boys State gave audiences an unfiltered insight into the program, with young boys from across America gathering together to prove themselves and redesign the government from the ground up. But what made Boys State so interesting and affecting was its ability to frame this program as a microcosm of the real world, dealing with topical issues and dissecting the very idea of democracy at work. Girls State does the same thing, focusing on the individuals at the heart of this story and using them as voices to discuss contemporary issues such as abortion rights and women in government.

However, where Boys State was an often cynical insight into the flaws of government in a male-dominated world, Girls State takes a much more uplifting and empowering stance on female empowerment and women’s increasing rights in the political landscape. Each of the young women in this documentary has their story to tell; they might adhere to different branches of the political spectrum, and their personalities may often clash, but they all have something to say and the film does a great job of explaining why their voices need to be heard. And while many documentaries have touched on similar issues in the past, what makes Girls State so much more effective is how engaging and entertaining it is. The filmmakers do a fantastic job of creating narratives of friendship, power, conflict, and ambition among these young women through peer-voted elections and mock court trials that keep the audience hooked.

What’s interesting about Girls State in comparison to its predecessor Boys State is that it doesn’t seem to glorify the program itself, but rather draws attention to the many unfair differences between the two groups and emphasises these in the wider context of women’s struggle for equality in a patriarchal world. There’s an entire segment toward the end of the documentary where one young woman writes an exposé of the program’s apparent favouritism of the male participants, which the filmmakers don’t shy away from but rather take in their stride and make an integral part of the story. It’s this blatant transparency that makes Girls State feel truly open and honest in its discussions of the political landscape, angling for the truth rather than the simple virtue signalling that the documentary easily could’ve become. 

Brooke Taylor and Nisha Murali sit on the couch in Apple TV+ documentary film "Girls State,"
Brooke Taylor and Nisha Murali in “Girls State,” premiering April 5, 2024 on Apple TV+. (Apple TV+)

The only issue with both Boys State and now Girls State is that 90 minutes just isn’t enough time to tell all these girls’ stories and build the tension and excitement that the documentary is clearly angling for with these high-stakes elections and interviews. The format would undoubtedly work better as some kind of limited series, giving these girls more time to discuss their own lives and make them feel like humans rather than just characters that serve a purpose. There’s so much potential here from a narrative perspective, from the budding friendships between these young women, to the election campaigns and tactics they use, even to the consequent responsibility that falls upon those who are successful, but there just isn’t enough time to navigate it all. The actual ‘plot’ of Girls State often feels like you’re trying to squeeze a whole season of television, with plot twists and character arcs, into 90 short minutes.

I once described Boys State as the perfect documentary for people who claim they don’t like documentaries, and that’s even more true of Girls State. The way these filmmakers manage to make reality feel like fiction with their careful framing of characters, relationships, and emotional engagement is astounding, allowing the audience to completely forget they’re watching a documentary at times. But when it matters, Girls State makes a point of reminding its viewer that the issues explored in the film, from women’s rights to political corruption, are real issues that need tackling. The whole program takes place in the shadow of Roe V Wade’s overturning in 2022, which gives a real timely element to the documentary and grounds it in reality when its narrative-focused lens often veers into the sensational. It’s an incredible documentary that’s a must-watch for anybody who wants a deeper insight into the minds that will one day govern America.

Watch on Apple TV

Girls State will be available to watch globally on Apple TV+ on April 5, 2024. Read our review of Boys State.

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