Movie Review: Moxie
By Matthew Huntley
March 29, 2021
“Moxie” proudly and unapologetically uses the “Hollywood teen movie” template as a means to bring important and serious topics to its young audience’s table, topics that, in this day and age, should ideally be on everyone’s mind, including how to combat racism, bullying, and toxic masculinity; promoting female equality and empowerment; respecting other people’s opinions and creating a safe, comfortable space to voice them; and raising awareness about sexual assault. It is direct and timely, and while the story and characters are mostly sufficient and leave something to be desired as far as their originality, the movie nevertheless has insight and entertainment value.
I’m willing to bet director Amy Poehler is a big fan of Hollywood teen dramedies, especially those that flourished in the late 1990s and early 2000s—movies such as “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Varsity Blues,” “She’s All That,” Cruel Intentions,” “American Pie,” “Bring It On,” and “Mean Girls.” “Moxie” uses many of its sistren’s same devices, right down to the slow motion shot when the film’s prudent heroine and her even more prudent best friend walk cautiously up to their high school on the first day of 11th grade and assess the usual cliques that have already reformed: the macho jocks with their letters sewn onto their varsity jackets; the skinny cheerleaders with their bouncy hair and short-skirted uniforms; the dancing, soulful African Americans; the chilled out skateboarders.
Poehler, working from a screenplay by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, based on Jennifer Mathieu’s 2017 young adult novel, is clearly using stereotypes and Hollywood clichés to set these various groups up. However, because Poehler is steering this ship, and because she’s known for sending up and demystifying superficial social systems and trite narrative formulas, particularly when it comes to the roles women play, we’ve a sneaking suspicion the movie will eventually turn its initial generalities on their heads.
Into the diverse crowd of students walks the “average” Vivian (Hadley Robinson)—the “nondescript white girl” if you will — and Claudia (Lauren Tsai), her taller, somewhat more nerdy Chinese sidekick (the fact Claudia is Chinese actually comes into play later on). Vivian and Claudia warily approach their classmates and take deep breaths, bracing themselves for another year of laying low and feeling self-conscious. In fact, Claudia is already worried because she’s gotten word “the rankings” have started, referring to the list of sexual labels by which the student body anonymously categorizes one another (we never actually find out who compiles this notorious list). The humiliating brandings range from “Never Been Touched” and “Best HJ” to “Best Rack” and “Most Bang-able.” This trope could have just as easily been featured in any one of the other teen movies I mentioned above, only now, in 2021, the rankings get disseminated on social media.
Perhaps it’s wrong to assume Poehler necessarily has affection for teen movies or their hackneyed conventions, because whether or not she admires them, the point is she’s smart enough to know the audience’s familiarity and knowledge of the genre will make it easier for “Moxie” to present its more important issues and agenda items, which are staged on the standard “female coming-of-age” platform. The plot kicks in when Vivian struggles to write about a cause she feels passionate about for her application to Berkeley. Up until now, the innocent teenager has never really thought about anything outside of getting good grades and keeping a low profile.
But the wheels for deeper thinking, empathy for others, and fighting for things greater than yourself start to spin when a new girl named Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) arrives at school. Lucy is strong-willed and outspoken and she immediately starts to challenge the current white, male-dominated system by which the school operates. Not only is Lucy of Latin-American descent, but she also questions why their English teacher (the ever-funny Ike Barinholtz) is still having them read books about “rich old white dudes,” even if it is a classic such as “The Great Gatsby.” Lucy’s background and progressive views are in direct conflict with those of Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), the shallow, quintessential quarterback, who immediately feels threatened by this newcomer and he begins to harass Lucy in ways that are surprisingly dark but also unfortunately believable. “Just ignore him,” Vivian advises Lucy. “Why should I ignore him,” Lucy asks. “Why can’t he just not be a dick?”
Soon enough, Vivian starts to question her own values and thinks her usual “keep quiet and take it” approach to her high school’s status quo, which has been cultivated by tribalism, patriarchy, and sexism, is no longer acceptable. Her new views come at a time when she learns of her single mom Lisa’s (Poehler) own rebellious past, which inspires Vivian to compose and publish a manifesto, or “zine” (which I’ve come to learn is short for fanzine) called “Moxie,” gracing it with words and phrases such as, “Feminism”; “Yeah, I sweat”; and a cover featuring a female boxer. It essentially implores females to not “keep quiet and take it” anymore. She makes a “sh*tload of copies” and places them in the girls bathroom, hoping to ignite a small revolution that will have both girls and boys questioning their values and behavior.
Vivian keeps a watchful eye in the hallways and it’s only a matter of time before her “intense” zine starts to gain traction and circulation, earning both praise and condemnation from the school’s various groups and honchos, including the uptight and by-the-book principal (Marcia Gay Harden), who demands to know who wrote it. But Vivian keeps her authorship a secret and opts instead to serve as an acolyte of the “Moxie” cause rather than its official leader. Even so, she bands together with several other female students in hopes of disrupting the system for the better.
Not that Vivian’s life is completely consumed by her newfound activism. After all, this is a teen dramedy and Vivian’s mind is racing with plenty of other adolescent-angst developments, not least a budding romance with Seth (Nico Hiraga), a skateboarder and gentleman who’s simply dreamy, chivalrous and perfect in all the right ways. They share a tender sequence at a funeral parlor of all places and we can’t help but find their romance fetching.
And just as she’s learning and growing more excited about who she is and what she stands for, Vivian must also come to grips with a few less harmonious life truths. One is the realization that growing up can sometimes mean growing apart and Vivian’s new friendships with other “Moxie” supporters force her and Claudia to question their once-exclusive, longstanding relationship. What’s more is that Vivian’s mom starts dating a co-worker (Clark Gregg), and just as quickly as Vivian was willing to become more open-minded and take greater risks in regard to her own social life, she has a hard time accepting change from others.
As a teenager trying to strike a balance between all her conflicting thoughts and emotions, Robinson, who’s 25 in real life, is sympathetic and convincing. She makes Vivian a smart, inquisitive person with whom we can identity and who we genuinely care about.
In fact, it’s our ultimately caring about Vivian and the “Moxie” cause that makes the movie work, because it’s fairly easy otherwise, given the genre, to know all its interweaving storylines will eventually come to a head and resolve themselves quickly and properly, so it’s better to be onboard with the people involved. We can anticipate the reveals, comeuppances, and kiss-and-makeups will take place at some major high school event, such as the “big game,” the prom, or a pep rally. A bolder and more ambitious film would have found a way to sidestep these and other conventions and perhaps avoid a foregone conclusion altogether.
Still, what holds us back from criticizing “Moxie” too harshly are simply its passion and affection for its own formula and how it runs with it. Overall, the movie is cheerful and intelligent, the cast is dedicated and credible, and the screenplay makes relevant, important points. I believe the triggering events that have come to the foreground of our collective consciousness the past few years, particularly 2016 and beyond, and movements such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Me Too,” have incited Hollywood to make social justice more of a standard and less a novelty in the products it releases. It still has a long way to go, but when the narratives that portray reform are earnest and respectful, such as they are in “Moxie,” we have a reason to watch them.
That’s not to say any movie about worthy social causes will, in turn, be worthy of our time, but I’m confident they’ll at least keep important conversations going. “Moxie” succeeds at not only starting a conversation but assuredly delivers the qualities we’ve grown to like about the “teen dramedy” genre it embraces, particularly the idea of a supposedly average young person learning, growing, overcoming odds, and ultimately inspiring hope. Even if the formula and plot themselves are not inspired, Poehler, along with her cast and crew, make them entertaining, and we walk away from “Moxie” thinking, smiling, and believing it was time well spent.