“If you keep your head down, he’ll move on and bother somebody else,” 16-year-old Vivian advises the new girl at school who has been bullied by a particularly odious classmate.
“Thanks for the advice,” comes the response, “but I’m going to keep my head up. High.”
That brief exchange is enough to ignite Vivian’s feminist awakening in “Moxie,” a sincere if ultimately empty coming-of-ager directed by Amy Poehler for Netflix, based on the novel of the same name by Jennifer Mathieu.
A smart, quiet kid who mostly fades into the background and was voted “most obedient” by her peers, Vivian’s first act of rebellion is to publish an anonymous girl power zine that ends up fueling an entire movement at school. But even as she becomes emboldened to challenge the double standards and misogyny around her, Vivian — who is white — remains silent when it comes to the ways in which sexism can be used to also bolster racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and classism. It’s one thing for a character to be oblivious to these factors, but the movie isn’t examining that ignorance, it’s emulating it. That’s a choice.
Diverse cast notwithstanding, “Moxie” (from screenwriters Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer) doesn’t seem particularly interested in what it means to be … not Vivian. Watching the film, all kinds of ideas ran through my head: What if this story were also told through the eyes of Lucy, the outwardly confident new girl referenced above (who surely has her own insecurities, though we never see them) played with terrific flair by Alycia Pascual-Pena? What if the Black girls on the soccer team who become Vivian’s new friends were actually developed into full-fledged characters? What if the one trans character and the one character who uses a wheelchair weren’t relegated to roles that feel barely a step above background actors?
Or what if Chestna, Meyer and Poehler had been interested in contemplating — even through the lens of a teenage girl still figuring things out — the ways in which white feminism can steamroll the very people it should uplift?
That’s not the movie “Moxie” aims to be. Fair enough. But it’s nearly 90 minutes before the subject of whiteness is even named (and then, just as quickly, abandoned) and, weirdly, these are teenagers who never seem to connect the sexism they experience with anything that’s happening outside their school. That strikes me as … not quite accurate to Gen Z. Kids can be myopic, but it’s almost alarming that the screenwriters envisioned a world in which teen girls become activists, but not one in which they’re also politically aware.
The end result is a movie that comes across as disappointingly vacant, a jumbled collection of good intentions gone wrong.
Here’s what works: As played by Hadley Robinson (of “Utopia” and “Little Women”), Vivian’s evolution feels modulated in all the right ways. You’re rooting for her. When she fumbles, it feels believable. And when she gains confidence and assertiveness, she does it without a dramatic makeover. She isn’t any different at the end of the movie than she was at the beginning, she’s just smarter about herself and the world around her. And she learns the power of calling out the bull most people in positions of power don’t want to deal with, let alone acknowledge. Marcia Gay Harden, as the school principal, is a great example of that kind of destructive inertia. When new girl Lucy reports that the captain of the football team (a convincingly loathsome performance by Patrick Schwarzenegger) has been harassing her, she’s met with all kinds of avoidance tactics: If she insists on calling it harassment, says Harden’s character, “that means I have to do a whole bunch of stuff. But if he’s ‘bothering’ you — and that’s what it sounds like to me — then we can actually have a conversation.”
I like that once the girls band together, they don’t turn on each other. There’s no slut-shaming or cliquey put-downs based on perceived status or popularity. And I laughed when they had their first impromptu meeting at a house party late one night, and they belatedly realize they’re sitting in some rich guy’s swanky man cave.
But here are some details the movie glides over: The actor who plays Lucy is Afro-Latina and the actor who plays the jock tormenting her is white. Those casting choices add a racial component that “Moxie” chooses not to acknowledge. We never see him harassing — yes, harassing — other girls in school with the hostility he reserves for Lucy, looming over her and hocking a loogie in her Coke. That the film doesn’t even recognize the misogynoir of it all not only feels like a missed opportunity, it feels disingenuous. Lucy is precisely the kind of self-aware character who would point this out!
At school, football gets all the attention and funding, while the opposite is true for the girls soccer team. So it’s odd that while Vivian and her female classmates continue to frequent football games, we never see this freshly empowered sisterhood showing up to soccer games to support their newfound friends. Why is the movie replicating a pattern the girls themselves find unfair?
Poehler has a small role as Vivian’s mom, a former riot grrrl who has left all that behind in order to raise a kid on her own. She’s the kind of person who weaves the word “intersectional” into a conversation but doesn’t actually talk about these issues with any depth; it’s all too tepid and the character feels underbaked. (On the plus side, Robinson and Poehler share enough of a resemblance that they legitimately look related.) The rest of the cast is likable and makes for easy screen company, from Pascual-Pena’s new girl (she currently stars on the “Saved by the Bell” reboot as well), to Nico Hiraga (“Booksmart”) who plays Vivian’s longtime friend-turned-crush-turned-boyfriend, to Lauren Tsai (”Legion”) as Vivian’s best friend who is initially less willing to join the girls in solidarity, a choice that feels complicated and honest and true.
Thanks to this movement Vivian sets in motion, there’s a camaraderie among the girls in school that didn’t exist before. That’s good. They’re more confident about confronting gendered B.S. when they see it. That’s also good. So is the fact that a rape allegation is taken seriously. But was all of this about individualized empowerment or will anything be different when the next freshman class steps through those doors? As an activist-in-training blueprint, “Moxie” is heavy on the protest angle but smoothly ignores that there’s a next step, which involves pushing for material change. Enthusiasm is important, but it’s not enough — and if you think teenagers don’t understand that, or how to organize around specific goals, you haven’t been listening.
I keep coming back to what the movie is avoiding. Poehler spent her early comedy years in Chicago and the entrenched racism and sexism in the sketch and improv scene there, as well as in other cities, has been a long-standing problem. It’s possible Poehler experienced or witnessed plenty of that firsthand. She is also one of the co-founders of the UCB comedy theater, which has become an influential launch pad for performers in New York and Los Angeles. “But every time you go,” Robert L. Hines, a Black comedian, told the Los Angeles Times this past summer, “it’s always the same white guys” performing in coveted slots.
Poehler co-founded UCB with three other Chicago alumni and the fact that they are “all white is not what rankles critics,” the LA Times noted. “It’s that a largely white male power structure has remained in place for more than 20 years.” At her most idealistic, I don’t think Poehler intended for that to happen. But I’m also not sure how someone who was drawn to direct a movie like “Moxie,” which argues against these very outcomes, can read that type of critical assessment of her own comedy theater co-ownership without wincing.
So much of Poehler’s body of work is rooted in a generous spirit, none more so than the humanistic qualities she brought to “Parks and Recreation.” The core ideas around which “Moxie” pivots so clearly speak to this. But maybe a critique of white feminism and the ways it aids and abets white male power structures feels too personal. Too uncomfortable. Too risky or close to the bone. Too unpleasant. Maybe that’s not something Poehler wants to do, or is ready to do, as a director. Maybe this wasn’t the project for that kind of introspection, anyway.
But without that courage, the movie lacks the very moxie it aims to champion.
2 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: PG-13
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Where to watch: Premieres Wednesday on Netflix