In Moxie, They Are Young Women, Hear Them (Nicely) Roar

The rebel girls of Moxie. Photo: Colleen Hayes/Netflix

Moxie is a story of teen feminist rebellion with a screenplay that plays every moment just a little too safe. As a high-school movie about the stuff of adolescence — friendship, insecurity, romance, parents who just don’t understand — it’s reasonably entertaining, and it gets extra credit for asserting that opening one’s eyes to social issues is as central to growing up as first dates and finding the right clique. But in its attempt to connect the spirit of Gen X with that of Gen Z, Moxie misses an opportunity to more fully evoke the dangers of speaking up in an environment where the status quo is valued above all else.

Based on the YA novel of the same name by Jennifer Mathieu, adapted for the screen by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, and directed by Amy Poehler, Moxie focuses on Vivian Carter (Hadley Robinson), a 16-year-old girl accustomed to keeping her head down, doing what’s asked of her, and commiserating with her equally quiet best friend, Claudia (Lauren Tsai). Things start to change when a new student, Lucy Hernandez (Alycia Pascual Peña of the new Saved by the Bell), arrives at Rockport High and immediately starts questioning the way things are done. On her first day in English class, Lucy asks the teacher, played by Ike Barinholtz, why they are reading The Great Gatsby, a book written by a white man about another wealthy white man, instead of novels by women or about the immigrant experience. Lucy’s opinions instantly make her a target for harassment by golden boy Mitchell Wilson (Patrick Schwarzenegger), the handsome football player who does whatever he wants without ever facing consequences.

After observing how Lucy is treated, Vivian, thinking she is being supportive, stops Lucy in the hall and tells her to just ignore Mitchell until he leaves her alone. “Why should I have to ignore him?” Lucy asks. “Why can’t he just not be a dick?” This is a great question.

The encounter triggers a memory for Vivian of a song that her mother Lisa (Poehler) used to sing to her: “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill, a signature track from the riot grrrl feminist movement of the early 1990s. Vivian quickly goes down a progressive-punk rabbit hole, listening to more Bikini Kill songs, sorting through photos of her once young and rad mother, and digging through old zines from the era. It’s one of multiple moments in Moxie that will prompt famously ignored Gen-Xers to point at their screens like that Leonardo DiCaprio meme from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: “Look, that’s us! Someone actually sees us.” For real: Bikini Kill is referenced so often in this movie that Kathleen Hanna deserves a supporting-actor credit.

Inspired by what she finds, Vivian impulsively creates her own zine — name, obviously: Moxie! — that highlights all the injustice and misogyny running rampant through the halls of Rockport. She distributes it anonymously in girls’ bathrooms and quickly acquires a legion of followers willing to ink stars on their arms in solidarity and to protest the school’s unfairly enforced dress code by wearing tank tops to school. But is Vivian willing to put her name behind her actions and potentially face some major consequences when the Moxie! movement treads into more serious territory?

That question gets at one of the flaws of Moxie: It is such a breezy, gentle movie that even when we know Vivian and others could get in trouble, it never feels like the stakes are terribly high. This is one of those light teen films where you know everything is going to turn out okay in the end, a certitude that stands in opposition to one of the central reasons people protest discrimination and hypocrisy: because it feels impossible that things will ever be okay unless they say something. Moxie never figures out how to fully reconcile that discrepancy between tone and purpose.

Then again, that might not be an issue the film wants to reconcile, depending on the audience for whom Moxie has been made. My sense is that it’s aimed more at older elementary schoolers and middle schoolers, many of whom may be just starting to wrap their minds around feminism and progressivism. For kids that age, Moxie could serve as a warm-bath gateway into learning more about that history and the real sacrifices made by those who have fought, and continue to fight, for women’s rights and human rights more broadly. Moxie would feel right at home in the context of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, the website/organization she co-founded in the 2000s to foster confidence in young women — it makes total sense that Poehler is attracted to this material.

As a director, she brings an earnestness and heart to the project that comes through in the energy and camaraderie among her young actors, especially Robinson (whose presence is reminiscent of a young Kirsten Dunst), Pascual Peña, and Nico Hiraga, who plays Vivian’s nerdy-cool boyfriend, Seth. The only casting misstep is Schwarzenegger, who perfectly fits the arrogant, good-looking archetype but happens to look his actual age, which is 27. It’s challenging to think of him as a high-school boy knowing that he was born the same year “Rebel Girl” was released.

What drags Moxie down more than anything, though, are the predictable beats in its screenplay. On multiple occasions, it’s obvious what’s going to happen before it actually does. The dialogue tries so hard to speak the language of the woke — during an argument over dinner, Vivian storms off while yelling “Fuck the patriarchy!” — that it sometimes sounds like it’s satirizing liberal ideals instead of embracing them. It also doesn’t help that the movie waits to address its most serious issue, date rape, until the last fifteen minutes of the film, undermining the complexity and trauma associated with that subject completely.

There’s a scene early in Moxie where Lisa confesses to her daughter that she and her feminist friends made a lot of mistakes when they were trying to change the world in the 1990s. “We argued with each other,” she says. “We weren’t intersectional enough. We called our meetings pow-wows.”

You can sense throughout the whole movie that, like her character, Poehler is trying to show she has learned from her own mistakes. There is notable inclusivity among the kids at Rockport, with Black, Latinx, Asian, disabled, and LGBTQIA students, among other groups, all represented. The movie displays Vivian’s blind spots about being a white girl who possesses all the privileges of whiteness. It’s obvious that Poehler and her colleagues have taken great care to impart all the right civic and social lessons, and that’s good. But watching Moxie, you wish they could have exhaled more and allowed more unresolvable messiness to infiltrate the movie’s spaces.

The words of “Rebel Girl” are worth remembering, for sure. But Moxie would have been wise to consider another Gen-X catch phrase, the one from the intro to The Real World that reminds us sometimes you have to stop being polite and start getting real.

In Moxie, They Are Young Women, Hear Them (Nicely) Roar