As Roe v. Wade fell, teenage girls formed a mock government in ‘Girls State’

This image released by Apple TV+ shows a scene from "Girls State." (Apple TV+ via AP)

This image released by Apple TV+ shows a scene from “Girls State.” (Apple TV+ via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — In the summer of 2022, days before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, some 500 high school girls gathered in Missouri for a weeklong mock government camp in which they elected their own governor and seated an all-female Supreme Court that would rule on their own bodies.

Not everyone came from the same part of the political spectrum or felt the same way about abortion. But, for a handful of days, theirs were the voices that counted. It was during that week that documentary filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine chose to film the follow-up to their award-winning 2020 film “Boys State.”

“It felt like we had gone from this sort of — not quite utopia — but this imagined, wonderful world where we had control of our bodies and we were involved in these conversations,” says Nisha Murali, one of the handful of young women followed in the film. “And then it just got ripped away from us.”

“Girls State,” which debuts Friday on Apple TV+, is, like 2020’s “Boys State,” an election-year documentary where national political discourse is experienced and reflected through coming-of-age teenagers.

“The programs are uniquely sensitive instruments, picking up these frequencies of American political life. It’s not a surprise that abortion would be front and center in that conversation,” says Moss. “We knew the court would hear a single case. We prayed it wouldn’t be speed limits — which has happened.”

Even before “Boys State” premiered, the filmmakers were contemplating a “sibling” film. While there are many corollaries, “Girls State” is, in compelling and illuminating ways, not a twin to “Boys State.”

The Boys State program, run by the American Legion since 1935, is more well known and better funded. (Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh are past participants. So is Mark Wahlberg.) The 2020 documentary, which chronicled the Texas Boys State, sought to capture whether the political attitudes of former President Donald Trump had filtered into young men. The results were a riveting microcosm.

Missouri teenager Emily Worthmore signed up for Girls State expecting an experience like she saw in that film. Worthmore, an affable, ambitious, conservative-leaning young woman from the St. Louis suburbs, arrived ready to engage in passionate political debates.

“But ours, because of the way it played out, it wasn’t set up for us to be having these big debates and be fighting and all of that,” says Worthmore. “Instead it was like: So why is it like this?”

What Worthmore and others realized was that the system of Girls State wasn’t the same as the Boys State being held across the campus at Lindenwood University. The girls’ program was funded by a separate organization, the American Legion Auxiliary, had a dress code that some deemed too strict and didn’t schedule sports activities the way the boys’ did. There was a camp cheer for the girls but not the boys. The Missouri governor attended the final ceremony at Boys State, but not Girls State.

As they do in so many facets of life, the young women of “Girls State” found themselves simultaneously pursuing a goal while being keenly aware of limitations placed on them.

“To me, one of the powers of this movie is making an invisible thing that’s baked into the structure of everything visible,” says McBaine. “I love that that then becomes part of the conversation after watching this film.”

Whether due to those factors or others, there’s a bond that connects the young women of “Girls State.” The film isn’t short on tension, disagreement or competition. But it’s more marked by moments of supportiveness. One counselor addresses an assembly: “We all have, in our own different ways, grown up in a world where we’ve never seen a female president.”

“Even in going into ‘Boys State,’ people said, ‘It’s going to be Lord of the Flies.’ And to some degree that is what you see. They’re competitive and they lash out. But more what we saw — and it was overwhelming with ‘Girls State’ — was the need to connect,” McBaine says.

Murali loses her bid for a Supreme Court seat but becomes friends with her political foe. After her defeat, Murali speaks reflectively about the pressure she and others are under to live up to expectations — not least the expectations they have for themselves.

“As women we all kind of cloak ourselves in this idea of who we’re supposed to be. Part of it is like a defense mechanism, at least for me. Part of it is anxiety,” Murali says. “For me, a big part of that is this image of being very competent, very knowledgeable, very serious. Girls State for me was about trying to figure out how much of that was real.”

Worthmore came into Girls State, as she says, having won every election she’s entered since fourth grade. But while she quickly wins widespread admiration for her engagement with each girl there — she makes a point to learn everyone’s name — Worthmore’s gubernatorial campaign falls short. Her speech doesn’t go the way she wants. Afterward, one of her competitors stops her on a stairwell and tells her, repeatedly, she doesn’t have to be perfect.

“I think that’s one of the best, most humanizing moments in the story,” Worthmore says. “It was definitely something I needed to hear. I know that I don’t need to be perfect, but at the same time you don’t want to mess up.”

In many ways, “Girls State” becomes a film less about political victory than defeat. After Worthmore’s loss, she resolves to spend her final day at Girls State reporting a story on the inequalities between the two programs — an act of journalism as inspiring as anything seen on film since “Spotlight.”

The headline on Worthmore’s piece downplays some of the questions raised. But her article and others’ criticisms led to some changes in the Missouri programs. The dress code was relaxed. Athletic opportunities were expanded. And now boys and girls have combined classwork.

“I think the real world has both genders,” says Worthmore. “How real is the political system if you’re only working with one?”

After spending years immersed in the simulations, the married filmmakers — while raising their own two teenage daughters — have come away only more convinced the American political system would be better served reflecting Girls State than the other way around.

“It feels like something precious to hold on to,” Moss says. “If we’re going to have a political future that sustains this democracy, it seems sad to say that we would have to turn to 17-year-old girls to present that to us. But perhaps it makes perfect sense.”

Murali, 18, is now studying engineering and philosophy at Texas A&M. She’s unsure of her political future but knows she’ll remain engaged. She remains changed by the experience.

“I learned how to fail,” she says. “I learned how to pivot after failing.”

“It means something not just to me but a lot of the girls at Girls State who saw these cameras,” Murali adds. “It means something to know that what you have to say is deemed important enough to be on camera.”

Worthmore, 19, is now studying communications at Lindenwood, where she won a scholarship to during Girls State. The freshman has joined a journalism society, a sorority and works at the radio station.

“I already have an office overlooking the football field,” she says.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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