Steering away from the drunken silliness she wrangled out of her last directing effort, Wine Country, Amy Poehler now moves into the more serious realm of high school with Moxie, a work about a 16-year-old girl’s realization that if she doesn’t take a stand against certain aspects of the status quo among her fellow students (sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.), she’ll never stand against the same issues as she moves into adulthood. Based on the novel by Jennifer Mathieu (and adapted by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer), Moxie works as a bit of a checklist of everything wrong, but usually accepted, with high school’s pecking order and bad behaviors, and how a small group of young women can gather forces and push through a small revolution.
Naturally, Poehler and her team aren’t all about message. There’s also a really sweet romance, a bit of drama as a lifelong friendship shifts a bit, and even a few laughs as adults who happen to wander into the orbit of these hormonal machines get caught up in the chaos. Vivian (Hadley Robinson) is a self-described introvert who spends most of her time in school with her head down and hanging out with her fellow introvert/best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai). Vivian is being raised by her single mom (Poehler) with her own rebellious past of listening to Bikini Kill and protesting anything that didn’t sit right with her as a feminist. Inspired by a combination of the ill treatment of new student Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) by football team captain Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger) and the release of an annual list that ranks the girls at the school in terms of their bodies, Vivian gets angry enough to create a zine called Moxie. She secretly distributes the publication throughout the school, detailing within it all of the long accepted wrongs that go on in the school to which Principal Shelly (Marcia Gay Harden) turns a blind eye in order to avoid the paperwork involved in dealing with an actual harassment complaint. The one teacher we see regularly, Mr. Davies (Ike Barinholtz), is a bit more hip to what these kids are going through and who the instigators are, but getting too involved could cost him his job, so Vivian quickly realizes that she’s going to have to demand the changes that the administration either can’t or won’t do on its own.
Although Vivian chooses to stay anonymous, she, Lucy, and a few other outsider ladies form a school club around the zine, something that seems to strain Vivian’s relationship with Claudia, who wants to help but doesn’t want to stick her neck out and get in trouble, suffering the wrath of her strict mother. The girls stage a dress code protest when a girl wearing a somewhat revealing tank top gets sent home from school while nobody bats an eye when a football player wears one in the same class. The protest seems to work and it inspires the girls to attempt something more substantial involving the regular bullying they endure from the school jocks—a cliché, perhaps, but the young Schwarzenegger does a remarkable job playing one of the great high school assholes in recent film history.
What’s most exciting about Moxie is watching the process and early states of empowerment and how it changes the lives of these girls forever. Is it oversimplified and accelerated? Of course. Does that make it any less exciting to behold? I don’t think so. In many ways, this experience helps Vivian mature enough to try something she’s never done before: date. Seth (Nico Hiraga) is a guy who is very much on her side and supports the Moxie movement fully, and he even makes a good impression with her mother. The relationship isn’t just there to take the throttle off of some of the film’s more serious subjects; it’s meant to show how Vivian and Seth are equal partners in their coupling, making smart decisions and supporting each other, even when being a part of the movement might get them in trouble.
Moxie is not a perfect coming-of-age film, but I think it takes risks where other teenage-centric stories don’t. The adults in the movie are, for the most part, underwritten, one-dimensional dolts (if someone can explain to me why Clark Gregg is even in this movie—as Poehler’s new boyfriend—I’d be eternally grateful; he barely registers). And I wish at least one of the faculty members had been a little more competent and aware of what was going on right in front of them. There’s also a clumsy rape mention—I hesitate to call it a subplot because of the way it’s wedged into the story at the 11th hour—that feels like so much piling on. I have no problem believing that rape happens among high school students, but it’s not a subject you casually drop in just before the credits roll. There’s a whole other movie to be made about that; someone be bold enough to make it.
Still, Moxie has a great deal going for it, and a part of me is always going to wonder where Vivian’s life goes from this point. She’s a junior in the movie, so is there a chance we’ll get to witness her senior year? I’d love to see it because I grew to care about Vivian and her rainbow group of friends, comrades, sisters, and revolutionaries. There are still changes to be made and growing up for them to do.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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