Review: ‘Moxie’ has verve but is more than a little clueless (and not in a good way)
The retro-titled “Moxie,” based on the 2017 novel by Jennifer Mathieu, is a likable, well-performed and admirably inclusive, if not terribly deep, comedy about teen feminism. The film, directed by Amy Poehler from a script by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, should strike a chord with young women aware — or becoming aware — that they’re growing up in a system still flagrantly rigged against them more than 50 years after their grandmas began burning their bras.
Vivian (Hadley Robinson) is an earnest, hard-working high school junior living with her divorced mom, Lisa (Poehler), and joined at the hip with Claudia (Lauren Tsai), her bookish longtime BFF. But a series of unsettling events — a student poll that ranks Vivian “most obedient,” a baffling college essay question, and the arrival of provocative new classmate Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) — inspires the 16-year-old to imitate her mother’s riot-grrrl past and buck the school’s sexist status quo. Her move: She secretly publishes a feminist zine dubbed “Moxie” and unleashes a campus rebellion.
For maximum enjoyment, it’s perhaps best to simply accept that Vivian’s homemade publication (we don’t get to see much of what’s inside) is so spot-on in its criticism of school bias and so widely embraced by the female students that it has the strength to incite a movement, also called Moxie. Same goes for the notion that Vivian can hide her authorship for as long as she does.
It could also be asked why the concept of sexism is suddenly such an eye-opener to the Moxie crew when that annual student poll, which contains such undignified categories as “Best Rack” and “Most Bangable,” should have sparked serious blowback ages ago?
Still, it’s enjoyable and heartening to see the film’s array of increasingly enlightened teen girls — including athlete Kiera (Sydney Park); her forthright pal, Amaya (Anjelika Washington); transgender CJ (Josie Totah) and others — band together for the common goals of fairness, gender and racial equality, and sisterhood. A one-sided dress code gets an appropriate dressing down as well.
The story also helpfully touches upon such related topics as white privilege, unconscious bias, ingrained misogyny and the toxicity of silence. A scene in which the introverted Claudia — who’s been slow to jump on the Moxie bandwagon (causing a predictable rift with Vivian) — explains the value of education in her Asian culture and the sacrifices her immigrant mother has endured makes one of the film’s better statements.
In addition, the movie smartly features Emily Hopper as Meg, a student who uses a wheelchair and displays an amusing take-no-prisoners attitude toward her oblivious classmates.
Vivian and her Moxie mates’ lively journey to achieve full student-body and administrative acceptance of their vital ambitions may not pan out in the most sweeping or boldest ways, but progress — personal, social and societal — is definitely made.
Yet for all its energy and charm, this overlong film contains its share of undermining missteps. Topping the list are the weak portrayals of the story’s few adults, most notably Rockford High’s Principal Shelly (a misused Marcia Gay Harden), who is so clueless and absurdly dismissive she makes Eve Arden’s Principal McGee from “Grease” look like Gloria Steinem.
Ike Barinholtz is one-note as a vague English teacher, and Poehler skims the surface of Vivian’s laid-back mom.
Also troubling is the school’s handsome, super-popular jock, Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), a first-class jerk who gets away with — and even rewarded for — his nasty, unabashedly chauvinistic behavior. Guys like him certainly abound, but Mitchell is such a one-dimensional trope, we learn little from his existence. When the tables finally turn on him due to a grave revelation that feels painfully under-explored, there’s no catharsis, just a check off a list.
On the upside, Robinson proves a breath of fresh air as she goes from self-effacing to self-empowered with naturalistic heart, verve and, yes, moxie. The other young actors, particularly Tsai, Pascual-Peña and Nico Hiraga as a dreamy skateboarder who steals Vivian’s heart, are also engaging talents.
Such Bikini Kill throwback tracks as “Rebel Girl” and “Double Dare Ya” have their day again here, plus there’s a fun on-screen performance by the L.A. teen/pre-teen all-girl punk rock band the Linda Lindas.
Rated: PG-13, for thematic elements, strong language and sexual material, and some teen drinking
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: Available March 3 on Netflix
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