Amy Poehler’s latest directorial debut, Moxie, has landed on Netflix. The film follows Hadley Robinson’s (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) Vivian, a shy and book-smart 16-year-old. Vivian breaks out of her shell when the everyday sexism at her school finally breaks her.
Rockport High looks like every American high school, defined by its cliques and attractive jocks. Vivian and her best friend Claudia (Legion’s Lauren Tsai) don’t fit any cliques. The lifelong best friends are too busy worrying about getting into college to care about sports and boys. Much like the lead pair of Booksmart, they are dedicated to books and science, flying under the cool radar is exactly where they want to be. When outspoken new girl Lucy (Saved by the Bell’s Alycia Pascual-Peña) arrives, she points out that there is something very wrong with their high school. When a list is published, declaring which girls are the most attractive and which are the least, a feminist revolution is ignited.
Inspired by a Bikini Kill song her feminist mother sung to her as a kid, Vivien starts her feminist awakening. Suddenly, overnight, she realizes the high school culture of treating girls like pieces of meat to judge isn’t right. Turns out, teenage boys are gross but it’s the attitudes of society that encourage it.
Vivien takes inspiration from her mother’s riot girl days and starts a ‘zine’. She calls it “Moxie”, a name inspired by a speech given by her high school principal (Mystic River’s Marcia Gay Harden). A homemade zine in the girls’ bathroom soon turns into a school-wide movement. Through the anonymous zine, Vivien starts making new friends, leaving behind her old ones.
If the film did have a villain, it would be cliché jock Mitchell Wilson (Midnight Sun’s Patrick Schwarzenegger). By being moderately good at sport, he is given a free pass to harass, bully and leer at those around him. It takes a new student to make the others understand he isn’t just being an asshole, his behaviour is toxic. What starts as talking over girls in Mr. Davies’ (played by an underused Ike Barinholtz) class, could lead to something far more dangerous.
Vivien’s new friend group accurately reflects the modern world; including assertive soccer stars Kiera (Sydney Park) and Amaya (Anjelika Washington), Kaitlynn (Sabrina Haskett), who gets targeted for having larger breast–including being penalized for breaking dress code rules despite wearing the same tank top as a classmate– and the recently transitioned CJ (Josie Totah). Their goals are simple, be as respected as their male counterparts, stop being dead named and stop being sexualized for reasons out of their control. However, these girls are all sadly underwritten. We see little glimpses of their lives and their struggles, yet it is never really investigated. More and more girls get added to the Moxie group, many of which we will never even learn their names, let alone their reasoning for supporting the organization. Sadly, Lucy is pushed to the side throughout the film, even though she’s one of the most complex and interesting characters in the movie.
At times, it feels like tokenism, ticking boxes of the different types of girls without ever exploring their different issues with modern society. Moxie does not provide substantive characteristics to each member of the revolution; their marginalized identities are what largely defines them. Lucy, played by Pena who is Afro-Latina, is the only marginalized character to have a backstory and clear purpose in the film. Feminism won’t be the same for all these girls, yet the film shoves them all into the same category, effectively disengaging with the intersections of oppression.
The side romance that involves Vivien and Seth (Nico Hiraga) is cheesy and not very well executed. A montage where they break into a funeral director as an odd cover of “La Vie En Rose” plays feels like a bad commercial. Another scene where they get intimate in a car as a cover of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” plays is wrong for this film’s demographic. At times, Seth’s character seems to appear as confirmation that being an ally to women will get you laid.
Moxie misses a trick in not dealing with how 90s feminists paved the way for our current wave and how middle-aged women are so often ignored in current conversations. Fans of Amy Poehler will be disappointed at the lack of screen time her maternal character gets. Her mini romance with John (Clark Gregg) is barely worth the audience’s time and does not effectively use her character for this feminism-based narrative.
Screenwriters Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer’s script–based on Jennifer Mathieu’s YA novel of the same name–is preaching to a generation that is better versed in feminism (especially intersectional feminism) than they give them credit for. They do well to not blame the young individuals or the high school staff who want to keep their heads down in a complicated world they don’t quite understand. Instead, the antagonist is the typical American high school culture, if not America itself. And despite the earnest tone of the film, the end revelation is a little bit too heavy for the script to handle.
Moxie is charming but feels like a film that is decades behind. Teenage girls have moved past this form of feminist awakening. Perhaps, its message is better aimed at older generations who forgot how it felt to be a young woman. Moxie is preaching an outdated feminist message to a generation that might not need it. Also, the film misses some big laughs and well-rounded characters for a tepid portray of a high-school feminist revolution. Moxie is a decent entry point for a subject that appears to be out of the film’s depth.
Moxie is available to stream exclusively on Netflix now
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy