MOXIE (2021) has moxie
MOXIE, a new Netflix original movie, directed by Amy Poehler, with a screenplay by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, based on the novel by Jennifer Mathieu, tells the story of a shy high school girl who rebels against the male-dominated culture of her school by creating a zine and eventual movement called Moxie that empowers and gives a voice to the girls at her school.
You can add this film to the ever increasing list of quality coming-of-age teen comedy dramas about high school girls navigating through uncertain times, films that include LADYBIRD (2017) , THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016), and BANANA SPLIT (2020). The script is full of poignant, moving moments that resonate, as well as some funny ones. Where MOXIE falls short is its ending, which becomes too neat and tidy, dealing with the serious topic of rape in a rather superficial way, which nearly sabotages the whole film because it almost trivializes the subject. But its heart is in the right place, and it’s hard not to really like this amiable, timely comedy drama.
Vivian (Hadley Robinson) and Claudia (Lauren Tsai) have been best friends since elementary school and now find themselves navigating through their junior year of high school, which mostly means keeping their heads down and ignoring what they view as simply annoying behavior by a lot of the boys at their school, behavior that includes publishing a list every year ranking the girls on various topics, such as “best butt” and “most bangable.” But when a new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) enrolls at the school, and refuses to back down to the aggressive behavior of handsome jock Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), her behavior strikes a chord in Vivian. Lucy tells Vivian that she chooses to hold her head up high, not down like Vivian, and she adds that Mitchell isn’t just annoying; he’s dangerous.
Even though Vivian does not get along at all with her mom Lisa (Amy Poehler) she still manages to find inspiration in stories of her mom as a teenager and how rebellious she was. So, Vivian begins to anonymously publish a zine called Moxie, which surprisingly to her, catches on with the girls at her school, and the next thing she knows, she has created a movement, but it’s a movement that Mitchell and his friends do not take kindly to. And as Vivian and the girls find out, the rules at the school heavily favor the Mitchells of the world.
MOXIE isn’t perfect, but it largely succeeds in what it sets out to do, mainly because the screenplay by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer is really, really good. There are a ton of moments that really work in this one. The dialogue is sharp and lively throughout, the characters authentic, and the situations realistic. For the most part. The best part is that Chestna and Meyer get the relationships right. The dynamic between Vivian and her mom Lisa works throughout, as they do not get along, and while Lisa continually tries to get closer to her daughter, she seems less perturbed by the chasm in their relationship than Vivian, which is a fresh take on this dynamic.
Vivian and Claudia’s friendship is poignant throughout and takes on the subject of race and culture, as Claudia is Asian and feels tremendous pressure to do right by her strict Asian mom who has worked hard to overcome racial obstacles in her own life. Then there’s the first love relationship Vivian has with Seth (Nico Hiraga), who seems to be the only boy sympathetic with their cause. The dinner scene between Vivian, Seth, Lisa, and Lisa’s date John (Clark Gregg) is a keeper. It’s both funny and in a few minutes of conversation, moving, as Vivian lashes out when John asks Seth about physics and she takes offense that he didn’t ask her, inquiring if he didn’t think she took physics because she’s a girl? Which is not what John meant by the question. It’s a brilliantly played brief scene that tackles some serious issues. There are many such moments throughout the film.
Where MOXIE falters is at times things come off as too simple and superficial, which works against what the movie is trying to say, especially the ending, which deals with rape. It’s handled so quickly it really doesn’t do the topic justice.
Hadley Robinson is very good in the lead role as Vivian. She’s the right combination of shy introvert, angry rebel, and eventually unexpected leader. Alicia Pascual-Pena is also excellent as Lucy, the new girl who’s refusal to back down sparks Vivian’s Moxie movement. Lauren Tsai is also moving as Vivian’s best friend Claudia.
Nico Hiraga is sufficiently sensitive as Vivian’s first boyfriend Seth, while Patrick Schwarzenegger nearly steals the movie as the golden boy jock Mitchell who seemingly can do whatever he wants. Schwarzenegger is the son of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver. He delivers a very memorable performance here.
Amy Poehler makes the most of her scenes as Vivian’s mom Lisa, and nearly every scene she’s in is a good one. And Marcia Gay Harden is also memorable as the very annoying Principal Shelly. She trivializes the girls’ concerns at every turn, and whether she intends to or not, she empowers the sexist cruel behavior of the boys, by falling back on the notion that as long as the boys aren’t breaking school rules, everything is fine.
I also enjoyed the way Amy Poehler directed this one. It is an energetic film from start to finish. It grabbed me in its opening moments with a creepy dream sequence, and then dove right in to its coming of age storyline.
While I can find fault with certain aspects of MOXIE, like the fact that its school depiction is rather broad and cliche, what it has to say about the treatment of girls by sexist boys is far too important to nitpick about. Is every male a monster? No. Are there males out there like Mitchell? Absolutely! Just like there are plenty of boys like Seth. Are there schools as poorly run and as blind and deaf to the plight of their female students as the school depicted in this one? Yes. Just read the news. And while there are most likely more schools that are better run than the one in this movie, that’s not the point. The point is that the behavior depicted in this movie should never be tolerated. Never.
I liked MOXIE a lot. It’s funny, yes, but more importantly, it covers a serious topic and does a tremendous job doing it, even with a too tidy superficial conclusion. And the reason it works so well is it is chock full of moving, memorable moments that will have your eyes tearing up, because that’s what happens when real people in real relationships pull for each other and stand up for each other.
With MOXIE, Amy Poehler has delivered the real deal.