Girls State participant Emily Worthmore | Apple Original Films

Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss on Their ‘Sibling Film’ Girls State

The acclaimed follow-up to their Sundance and Emmy-winning Boys State

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20 mins read

Every year, in every American state, the American Legion invites groups of young people to form a mock government. Part summer camp, part political nerd-fest, the event comes complete with campaign posters and speeches, elections, and the passage of various legislative bills. Back in 2020, Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss brilliantly captured one of these events in Texas, result­ing in the Emmy Award and Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning Boys State. The film was an instant classic, focussing on precocious young politicians as they navigated the vagaries of their divided caucuses—a microcosm of a divided America—and found a way to express their beliefs and ambitions.

Four years and one presidential cycle later, we get the next chapter: a “sibling” film to the original that’s far more than a repetitious sequel. The husband-and-wife team of Moss and McBaine have yet again managed to be at the right place at the right time, with real-world events giving fuel to the mock-proceedings as young women gathered in Missouri’s Girls State for their event. Far more than a simple gender swap, Girls State has its own narrative power, while providing deeper context to what came before and how much the landscape has shifted over the last several years.

POV spoke with McBaine and Moss following the film’s premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The duo reflected upon their reticence to take on the topic again, their personal reasons for bringing the story to life, and whether they feel optimistic about the future after having spent time with these “keener” kids.

Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss | AppleTV+

POV: Jason Gorber
AM: Amanda McBaine
JM: Jesse Moss
The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

 

POV: How many seconds into Boys State did you know we were going to be here one day?

[Laughs]

JM: Actually, maybe the second call we placed in Texas when making the first film was to their local Girls State program. They weren’t very responsive. I think the organizers didn’t like that we were talking to the boys’ program, and they were being competitive. Honestly, we could have ended up there as well if they had been more open.

We had been attracted to shooting with the Texas group because the Boys State program had voted to secede from the union. When Boys State did come out, it had such a strong reception, and so miraculously came together. As the parents of two teenage girls, we felt there was an unfinished conversation about how girls do politics differently.

Then COVID hit, but we were persistent and got encouragement to keep developing the project. We were scared, honestly. As you know, Boys State was kind of a miracle—the plot, the characters—it was as if lightning struck. Could lightning strike twice? We were terrified to invite comparisons, but it seemed essential that we make a film that existed in relationship to Boys State.

AM: We couldn’t not do it, but at the same time, it seemed insane to do it! During the filming of Boys State, there were a number of occasions where I was with an all-female crew. There would be a little circle of boys, often holding very religious beliefs, talking about abortion. It didn’t come up a lot, but when it did, it was a palpable moment where I thought, “I really wish I was in an all-girls space having this conversation.” Knowing that Texas’ Girls State participants were having the same experience in a parallel universe, I thought that this was where I wanted to go next.

I didn’t know that different Girls State or Boys State programs built a judicial branch, because at Texas Boys State, they don’t. There, it’s just an executive branch and a legislative branch. So that was definitely something we were looking to focus on in a girls’ program.

POV: It seems like this narrative was meant to happen when it did, one election cycle later. It’s serendipitous, but also the result of pre­pared filmmakers ready to follow the story.

AM: There’s certainly intentionality in filming in the time leading up to a major election. These sessions tend to be organic in the sense that they’re bringing the anxieties of the adult state into the discussions. Kids are sensitive, and we’re all connected on some level. There have been non-election years where we’ve been told that the big issues they’re debating are speed limits and gas prices, stuff that’s not quite as hot-button or particularly polarizing.

 

POV: Or existential.

AM: Or gender dividing. In addition, the situation with the pandemic was coming to the point where people could gather again. There was an energy we wanted to capture that was intentional. We wanted to film kids who were finally gathering again to build something, together, in real life. That seemed like it was going to have a certain electricity to it.

 

POV: What made it all truly compelling was the Dobbs decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the US Constitution doesn’t confer the right to abortion, effectively changing the lives of the girls you were filming.

AM: Yes, the Dobbs decision was leaked the week before all the girls gathered, in a state that has a trigger law where abortion was going to become illegal within a month. Jesse likes to talk about documentary gods. I don’t know about that, but there was a certain “whoa” moment when that played out.

Girls State participant Tochi Ihekona | Apple Original Films

JM: One thing we highlighted was to call the film not a “sequel,” but a “sibling.” When I think of documentary sequels, there isn’t an illustri­ous list. But in this instance, Girls State is a sibling to the prior film—it’s related; it shares DNA, but it needs to be its own being.

As Amanda said, we were terrified, but I suggested we do it, if only to let our 16-year-old daughter be a PA on the production. She would then have the opportunity to work with her parents, and if it was a total disaster, at least we would get something out of it. It’s important for us to lean into that terror as filmmakers, to not play it safe. I remember saying in production, when it was absolute chaos, that this is my favourite way of making movies. This one had an enormous crew. I’ve made movies by myself, as you know, with just Amanda, and that’s exhilarating. But I’m too old to do that now, I think. So this, with so many collaborators, it was a joy to be so unhinged, so out of control.

AM: The biggest fear for me was that we weren’t going to meet kids who surprised or thrilled me. I just absolutely adored the guys that we met on Boys State. We did end up meeting wonderful girls, and in a way, I’m kicking myself for ever feeling like I wouldn’t meet great kids again. The fact is, probably every year, and every state, and every session, there are people worthy of these films.

It was exciting to see that if you step out of your house and you start talking to a group of five hundred kids from Missouri, you’re going to find some extraordinary people. It restores your faith in humanity—each time you make one of these movies, you find people who teach you something about yourself, about politics, about our country, about the meaning of it all.

 

POV: Let’s talk about that optimism. Jesse, with your other project War Game, about a simulation that anticipates a response to another January 6th-style insurrection, you’re seeing a darker future. Can you talk about moments during Girls State where you saw glimpses of a brighter future?

AM: Hope and fear are the staple of most stories that are told. One thing I like about making films about teenagers is that they’re so adept at being frank about the problems and the bullshit they’re facing. Yet they’re also full of energy and idealism and optimism and openness. So, they’re frank about the fact that America’s got a lot of problems, and has done so many things wrong. At the same time, as individuals, they’re not done with civil discourse. That to me, creates an interesting tension. We’ve been asked about hope and fear going all the way back to The Overnighters (2014), or even further back.

Girls State participant Faith Glasgow | Apple Original Films

POV: You talk about sibling films—hope and fear are themselves siblings.

AM: Right, and one without the other doesn’t really make sense to me, particularly when it comes to our country.

JM: They’re the kind of stories that I respond to, and we lean into that complexity, that tension. It’s a tension of form, but also of the com­plexity within characters who embody those feelings. It’s what makes Emily so interesting as a protagonist in this film. She’s a conservative, someone who is politically different from most of us who are coming to this film. Emily is on an interesting journey. She has unbelievable optimism and ambition.

When auditioning kids for Boys State, I didn’t meet anybody like Emily, who told me they were already running for President. Emily was actually babysitting kids in the fourth grade and campaigning for their votes. She said to them, well, you’ll be able to vote for me in 12 years.

I think about your question and the contradictions inherent within the characters and the program itself, which embodies certain contradic­tions. There’s a mix of modernity and an uncomfortable tradition. As a society, we wrestle with those contradictions, and you see the program doing the same, trying to shed its old-fashioned dress codes, quaint songs, and crêpe paper decoration and lean into giving a platform and a voice to these young women who want to take political power. Can you successfully do both? I think those who grapple with their own contradictions make for the most interesting screen characters. We watch Emily trying to find this fine line between her conservative values and a willingness to be open to other people, and wonder if she can she manage that pirouette.

 

POV: It’s equally easy to be swayed by youthful enthusiasm before reality grinds it down. What do you see as the legacy for these kids?

AM: Two of the kids that were in Boys State have legitimate jobs in the political sphere. They are doing great stuff, and are going to have plenty of time, since they’re only 23 or so. I find it very encouraging to see that many passionate, ambitious kids who give a crap enough to play pretend-government. One of the kids in Girls State, Faith, is now working for a congresswoman in Missouri while attending an honours program at Missouri State University. She is a firing-on-all-cylinders kind of individual.

When we were all that age, as Gen Xers, we were slackers, right? We weren’t all like that, but I think that, as much as we can paint a portrait of these kids who are engaged, it’s a good thing. And we know from the David Hoggs of the world that these younger kids are not quiet about being critical of the adult state.

The fact is, we have two Americas, two totally different presidential candidates, but then what? I think that’s where they are, they’re sitting in the “but then what” space. Because they are young, they are a little outside of it. They can have that perspective on it. I find that immensely encouraging.

Nisha Murali and fellow Girls State participants | Apple Original Films

JM: Our discourse in American politics is more divided and corrosive now than it was when we made Boys State. But when we were casting the film, these girls from small towns in Missouri who had conservative parents carved out their own political views. They had received their signals from outside their small communities, which had opened their eyes. You hear that from Faith too, that she’s charted her own path. We didn’t see that in Texas with the boys.

That’s what made it so frustrating to watch them come up against the limitations of the program, with the structural obstacles that young women face, whether internal or external obstacles. Despite this, they found their way, and that was inspiring.

 

POV: This could be like the Up series, where you could go back every election cycle and find stories to take the pulse of the youth of America. Is that something that you are interested in doing? Or do you not want to be thought of as “the State people”?

AM: The State people. I love that. I don’t know. I feel very satisfied with what we did with Boys State—analyzing political behaviour and tribal­ism, Lord of the Flies-style. I feel similarly satisfied with the issues and people we explored in Girls State. We don’t know where everything is headed this fall.

JM: I’d love Seven Up! as a model, that sort of hyper-longitudinal project, and what it says about British society and growing up and growing old.

AM: We get older, they stay the same age.

 

POV: “Alright, alright, alright.”

JM: Exactly. I quoted that line from Dazed and Confused yesterday! Seeing young people confront corrosive politics and having conversations that are meaningful provided a very moving and illuminating experience. But maybe we’ve exhausted the State programs, I don’t know.

AM: We do like that these stories are microcosms for the macrocosm. With young people, with the small things standing in for the big things, it never stops being intellectually and emotionally fascinating. I don’t know; maybe we’re not done!

Girls State is available on AppleTV+.

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at ThatShelf.com and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, RogerEbert.com and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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