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.
My Take – With the success of films like The Edge of Seventeen (2017), Love, Simon (2018), Eighth Grade (2018), Booksmart (2019) and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy, the American high school movie genre is going through a stupendous resurgence mainly due to the refreshing updates added to a very familiar format. And the latest to fit that mold is this Netflix release, which takes a direction rarely seen in such kind of films.
Marking as the second feature directorial for Parks and Recreation star Amy Poehler (following 2019’s Wine Country), although predominantly palatable and light, the charming film has something to say about learning how to use one’s voice and offers a primer on feminist activism for teenagers who are just about starting to make sense of the glaring gender inequality everywhere. Most importantly, it introduces complex ideas of identity and self-worth along with the inherent sweetness and relentless optimism of the genre.
Though ultimately it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the above mentioned films, as it tries to stuff a lot of things into 111 minutes, but given that Poehler is a talented entertainer, her film and the terrific cast, that work well off each other, are difficult to dislike. It’s well-intentioned, funny, engaging, and offers its target audience plenty of substance to sink their teeth into.
Based on the 2015 novel of the same name by Jennifer Mathieu, the story follows Vivian (Hadley Robinson), a shy high-school junior who leads a pretty dull life, spending most of her time hanging with her best friend, Claudia (Lauren Tsai), and her single mom, Lisa (Amy Poehler). However, like most girls her age she too has grown increasingly fed up with the sexist culture at her school, especially the list a group of popular boys, led by football captain Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), put out every year which tags each one of them with degrading titles. And when Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña), a new student dares to speak up against Mitchell, she gets blasted on the list and later intimidated by Mitchell himself.
Inspired both by the take-no-prisoners attitude of Lucy and the discovery of her mother’s rebellious past, Vivian makes a decision to pour all her rage into publishing an underground zine that she anonymously distributes around the school. And it doesn’t take long for the zine to catch on, soon forming a resistance among the young women at the school and sparking a reckoning regarding both inappropriate behavior among the male students and the discriminatory rules of the school at large.
Despite the strong theme, the proceedings are fun, never too flippant to be taken too lightly, never too self-important to be taken too seriously. The balanced tone, the rousing soundtrack and the ignited performances trigger off a kind of movement in the film that goes beyond the screen.
The film fits firmly in the American high school tradition, with most of the archetypal characters present in some form or another: the sardonic male teacher, the incompetent head, the jocks and the nerds can all be found in the supporting cast. But while it might be packed with familiar tropes, this is managed in a way that feels comfortably familiar rather than overtly clichéd.
There are some great moments peppered throughout the film’s runtime, and director Poehler achieves perfect balance to recreate the real-world scenarios inside the comfort of teenage comedy, making sure at every juncture that her target audience is never alienated. T
he film is earnest and insightful, and its characters are injected with enough genuineness so that their emotions and actions never feel manufactured. Vivian’s confusion over whether to follow her instinct and call out the serial wrongdoers, or evade the spotlight lest she become the target of the school bully, feels as organic as the rage of a girl on being singled out and categorically disallowed to wear tank tops. T
hough the connection between Vivian randomly remembering the lyrics to “Rebel Girl” and finding her mom’s old stash of zines, then creating her own zine, is thin. But generally, it’s satisfying to see her evolve from shy introvert to a leader emboldened by anonymity.
Even the numerous scenes of students from different social groups showing solidarity with one another and planning the revolution’s next steps are enjoyable, as it is definitely refreshing to see a wide variety of girls pulled into the mix and not just the outsiders, as popular student Kaitlynn (Sabrina Haskett) and soccer captain Kiera (Sydney Park) join in as well.
However, the most interesting aspect of the film, though, is the relationship between Vivian and her childhood best friend Claudia. Claudia approaches the zine and the school’s feminist movement with slightly more reservation than most others, and at times feels she’s been neglected by Vivian’s newfound status as a revolutionary. There’s a great scene where the pair argue at Claudia’s bedroom window, with Claudia explaining how the stakes are different for her due to her Asian heritage. This provides a more thorny moment for Vivian and her movement, albeit one which is overcome by the film’s air-punch conclusion.
Unfortunately, the film has its set of issues as well. With so many plot threads introduced early into the film, the film begins to lose itself under its own weight halfway through the second act. It tries to shoehorn in as many buzzwords as possible, which although well-intentioned can come across a little forced.
While it is good thing to see diverse groups on our screens, especially for young women, but this film’s diversity is often underutilized. The film makes a good-spirited attempt but just doesn’t make the cut. It doesn’t give the marginalized characters enough screen time or good enough dialogue. Even Lucy, whose original stand is a major starting point for the movement, is largely sidelined as a character for the second act of the film.
And then there’s a slightly tonally jarring moment at the film’s conclusion, where an emotional revelation of a traumatic incident perhaps too quickly gives way to the altogether more celebratory mood of the film’s finale. The film feels like it was meant to be about an hour long, but I’m not sure that would’ve made it much better. It attempts to redeem itself with an important reveal less than ten minutes before the end of the film, which leaves the ending feeling more rushed than fulfilling.
Nevertheless, the performances are up to the mark. Hadley Robinson does a good job selling Vivian’s shyness and vulnerability, though she does not particularly stand out in comparison to the film’s supporting protagonists like Alycia Pascual-Peña and Lauren Tsai, who bring in charismatic performances. Nico Hiraga is instantly endearing from his first scene, while Amy Poehler, Ike Barinholtz, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sabrina Haskett, Sydney Park and Anjelika Washington bring in fun performances.
In smaller roles, Marcia Gay Harden, Josephine Langford, Josie Totah, Emily Hopper, Charlie Hall, and Clark Gregg bring in interesting turns. On the whole, ‘Moxie’ is a flawed but fun coming-of-age dramedy that is bound to strike a chord with both teenagers and older viewers.
Directed – Amy Poehler
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 111 minutes