Synopsis: Inspired by her mom’s rebellious past and a confident new friend, a shy 16-year-old publishes an anonymous zine calling out sexism at her school.
Stars: Hadley Robinson, Amy Poehler, Alycia Pascual-Peña, Lauren Tsai, Josephine Langford, Ike Barinholtz, Marcia Gay Harden, Sydney Park, Clark Gregg, Patrick Schwarzenegger
Director: Amy Poehler
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Nostalgia is funny thing when it comes to the high school experience. I wonder how many youths that have graduated within the last decade during the biggest boom of social media will look back on their time during what everyone knows is the most awkward period of growing up. Those freshman through senior years can be quite influential for the person you will become, at least for the next few years into whatever comes after high school. It’s entirely why movies and television shows about this age group have been so appealing over the years, changing through the decades to reflect the current state of what life is like for those living it.
I can tell you with absolute certainty that I would not have flourished in the environment that exists for teenagers nowadays. Not only is there added pressure in the realm of academia but thinking about the extra layer of technology allowing for anonymous cyber bullying and the sharing of personal information among classmates is enough to keep you up past your bedtime on a school night. Then there are the social, racial, and gender norms which are going through an upheaval with the advent of politics becoming more radicalized, finding the next generation of leaders suffering the consequences for a system that doesn’t support their choices. Sexism and misogyny run rampant and without anyone to call it out, it will continue unchallenged.
In Jennifer Mathieu 2017’s YA novel, Moxie, the author posits what would happen if an unassuming high school junior suddenly took it upon herself to push back against the imbalance in the way women and other marginalized groups are treated by other students, teachers, and school administrators. An early fan of the book was comedian Amy Poehler (Sisters) and after directing the easy breezy gal pal comedy Wine Country for Netflix in 2019, she signed on to film an adaptation of Moxie for the streaming service and take a small supporting role as well. Taking cues from a screenplay by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, Poehler wisely avoids making Moxie into a simple girl power tale that winds around expected corners on its way to a syrupy ending. Working with a talented cast of up and comers, Poehler instills a strong message without going overboard in dramatic histrionics to make her point.
The start of a new school year means Vivian (Hadley Robinson, Little Women) and her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) are one year closer to graduation and then off to the smarty pants college they plan to go to together. They’ve gotten used to their place in the school hierarchy and Vivian especially has resigned herself to remain unnoticed, though long-time platonic friend Seth (Nico Hiraga, Booksmart) has had a definitive growth spurt over the summer. Is it her imagination or does he seem awfully talkative with her in their morning class together? While Vivian musters about the courage to check in with Seth, she notices that high school quarterback Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger, Daniel Isn’t Real) is already giving new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) a chilly welcome after she doesn’t respond to his phony charm act that others have fallen for.
At first, Vivian turns a blind eye to Mitchell and encourages Lucy to do the same, but as the taunting gets worse and more behavior goes unchecked, she impulsively puts together a crude manifesto of sorts after uncovering a suitcase filled with her mom’s old paraphernalia from her days as a rabble-rouser in her high school. Distributed anonymously around the school and credited to “Moxie”, the ‘zine’ becomes a tool of empowerment for a number of students at the school and a hot button issue for everyone else. Rules are broken, voices are raised, and the usual way of doing things is challenged by a growing number of students that find they have a voice and there is strength in numbers. As the identity of Moxie is sought, Vivian struggles with keeping her secret from a new group of friends while maintaining her old relationship with Claudia and being honest with her single mother (Poehler) who doesn’t understand why her daughter is suddenly shutting her out.
I’m going to say something a little controversial for all you Wine Country fans out there. While I found that film to be a lot of fun for a Friday night, it had some uneven spots that left me feeling it was missing something overall. Perhaps it was just a case of having too many good people to choose from – the cast was an abundance of riches and I never felt like I got a healthy sampling of any one of them. With Moxie, I feel as if Poehler worked out some of those directing kinks because it’s a far superior film where pacing is concerned and since it’s been cast with a number of fresh faces it doesn’t come with a lot of expectation attached to it. Instead, Poehler has thought about who should play the adults and filled those roles with the likes of Marcia Gay Harden (Grandma) as the school principal who doesn’t make life easy for Vivian and her friends, Clark Gregg (Live by Night) in a minor role playing a co-worker of Poehler’s, and Ike Barinholtz (Suicide Squad) as a hapless teacher that never can quite be on the right side of an argument.
Where Moxie shines the most is its strong cast playing the high school students aching to be valued for more than what they look like on the outside. As Vivian, Robinson is an inspired, naturalistic presence that convincingly goes from a shy not-quite wallflower into a more confident dance like no one’s watching activist in her own right. With Tsai holding the more cautious side as her longtime best friend and Pascual-Peña the bolder new kid on the block, both actresses’ lived-in performances offer Vivian opportunities to lead or become a better leader. As other Moxie girls that get into the act, Sabrina Haskett, Sydney Park (Wish Upon), Anjelika Washington all have nice moments along the way, with Haskett especially going through a nice moment in standing up for herself in front of others. It’s no fun playing the bad guy and Schwarzenegger seems to be enjoying himself at least, so there’s that. Get ready to swoon over Hiraga playing the kind of compassionate boy every mom (or dad) would want their daughter (or son) to date.
You could nitpick at a few things along the way, sure, like the way the film either introduces threads of ideas and then completely abandons them (two characters kiss and then their relationship is never mentioned again, a trans character auditions for a musical which is supposedly a big deal but there’s no follow-up) or it drops in something out of left field. Yet in some way, the script resembles the mind of a teenager in that way. Everything is important in that very moment and sometimes it remains at the forefront and maybe it goes away quickly…or that incident they were mad about years ago they’re going to bring up now just because they need to be angry about something…anything. That could also be me rationalizing some gaps in the writing or editing.
Netflix has done well by their teen audiences over the past few years and Moxie is another sign they know their audience, as well as another vote of confidence on Poehler’s evolution as an artist. Her role in the film is just enough to satisfy your fix for her onscreen (not that I would have begrudged a scene or two more) but it’s clear she wanted to focus to be on a new crop of talent, giving voice to a different kind of conversation. Keep being a part of these forward-moving films, Netflix.