True/False Spotlights Girls State

Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s Girls State (2024)

Every first weekend in March, the Ragtag Film Society hosts the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri, presenting a program of mostly nonfiction films, throwing parties and a parade, and having musicians perform live before each screening. Since 2021, the festival has selected a Show Me True/False title “to show our community all the possibilities shared experiences with film can hold. This year’s selection, Girls State, offers robust conversation about coming-of-age, democracy, and gender parity.”

Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss will take part in an extended Q&A on Saturday. Sundance launched Girls State in its noncompetitive program Premieres, and Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov noted in January that Moss referred to the film as “a ‘sibling,’ not sequel, to 2020’s uptempo Boys State,” the winner of a Grand Jury Prize in Park City. Shot in Austin, Texas, in the summer of 2018, Boys State documents the efforts of a thousand high school juniors—all of them guys, of course—to create a representative government from scratch.

Both the Boys and Girls State programs date back to 1937, but they’re hosted by separate entities, the American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary, respectively. In 2022, for the first time in eighty years, the two events were held simultaneously at the same location, Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, a little over a hundred miles east of Columbia.

This is essentially the when and the where of McBaine and Moss’s Girls State, but crucially, the 2022 event took place just after the Supreme Court’s draft opinion on Dobbs v. Jackson was leaked and just before Roe v. Wade was overturned. “The attendees at Girls State are young women in America, already cognizant of the stakes tied to their political beliefs,” writes Kevin Fallon at the Daily Beast. “But this supercharged the immediacy of the proceedings.”

“As in the first film,” writes Adrian Horton in the Guardian, “Moss and McBaine embed with several participants across the political spectrum, with various pains and ambitions, to fascinating effect. There’s Emily, an almost scarily real-life Tracy Flick, blond and determined and brittle, a conservative pastor’s daughter who announces her plan to run for president in 2040; she is one of several to run for governor, the week’s highest office and most competitive position.”

In the second half of the film, the young women begin to take an interest in the discrepancies between the two supposedly equal but separate events happening on campus. Emily heads up an investigation. Turns out, the budget for Boys State is three times greater than that of Girls State. The boys wander the grounds freely, but girls are required to walk out in pairs. The girls have a dress code; the boys don’t. The boys have a gym; the girls don’t.

“It’s here where the documentary reaches a crossroads, where one senses friction between the movie McBaine and Moss set out to make and the one developing in front of them,” writes Jake Kring-Schreifels at the Film Stage. For Paste’s Jacob Oller, it “does a heart good to see a bunch of TikTok teens across the political spectrum use their informed, confident stances to confront power, especially when that power lies with the counselors and organizers of Girls State.” Emily announces that the program “needs to teach us to combat, not prepare us for, sexism in the workplace.”

True/False 2024 will present twenty-five short films, and of the thirty-one features, six are world premieres. Three of them have caught the eye of Max Havey, who offers a terrific guide to the festival’s twenty-first edition in St. Louis Magazine. In one of Havey’s picks, A Photographic Memory, Rachel Elizabeth Seed delves into the archive left behind by her mother, photojournalist Sheila Turner-Seed.

Flying Lessons, a portrait of outsider artist Philly Abe, is Elizabeth Nichols’s debut feature. Michael Toledano, Jennifer Wickham, and Brenda Mitchell’s Yintah, another first feature, focuses on Canadian indigenous Wet’suwet’en activists’ efforts to halt the construction of gas and oil pipelines on their territory. This year’s True/False Film Fest will open on Thursday and run through Sunday.

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