Blame suburban life: Former riot grrl Lisa (Amy Poehler) has mellowed since her days as a patriarchy-smashing punk-rock princess. She’s raised her only child, the sweet-natured Vivian (Hadley Robinson), on a steady diet of Bikini Kill lyrics and feminist bon mots, but Viv has never felt the call to tear down the status quo. That’s about to change. When the earnest “Moxie” — which Poehler also directed — opens, unassuming Vivian is stuck in a terrible nightmare, trapped in the woods, terrified, running, and literally unable to use her own voice to save herself. It’s not exactly a subtle experience, but then again, neither is high school, and it seems telling that Viv’s nightmare unfolds the night before she head back to Rockport High School for her junior year.
Rockport High, like many an on-screen high school before it, is defined by its many cliques, and neither Vivian nor her best pal Claudia (Lauren Tsai) fit in any of them. Bookish and smart, familiar enough with everyone but firmly dedicated to each other’s BFFship, the duo aren’t on anyone’s radar and that’s how they like it. But there is something very wrong at Rockport, and Poehler gently pokes at that idea even as “Moxie” seems to go through the usual motions. The introduction of outspoken new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) helps speed things along, as does lingering chatter about some sort of “list” the boys unfurl every year with “rankings” for each girl. Vivian isn’t the most obvious choice to lead a feminist revolution, but maybe that’s exactly what makes her right for the gig.
Inspired by a Bikini Kill song her mom co-opted as a lullaby when Vivian was a kid and a literal suitcase filled with riot grrl paraphernalia, Vivian is moving toward her own feminist awakening by time she’s radicalized by the latest iteration of the list. With her name on it for the first time, Vivian suddenly realizes that the list is, well, really gross, and so are the attitudes that allow it.
Based on Jennifer Mathieu’s YA novel of the same name, screenwriters Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer’s earnest script strives to keep any one person from being the bad guy, although Marcia Gay Harden as a decidedly unenlightened principal often makes for a decent villain. Instead, they turn their attention to the attitudes and behaviors that pervade American high schools, if not America itself. Vivian can finally see just how much the girls of Rockport are, at best, overlooked and, at worst, abused by both the system and their (male) classmates. But can everyone else?
“Moxie” may be about right now, but it’s also something of an old, been-there, done-that story. The film will surely prove to be entertaining enough for most viewers, although some audiences might balk at a perceived lack of comedy coming from comedic superstar Poehler. That’s not its aim, however, and the film is frequently charming and zippy, even without big laughs. Mostly, it may prove to be enlightening to older generations who don’t remember what it felt like to be young and suddenly clued into the ways of the world. For its target demo of teenage audiences, it will be less revelatory.
Inspired and righteously pissed, Vivian does what many a young feminist has done before: She starts a ‘zine. Dedicated to shining a light on the many ills of Rockport, she calls it “Moxie” and begins distributing it anonymously. She’ll be found out, of course, but “Moxie” revels in the journey her new outlet takes her on. While the reaction of some of her peers — namely, BFF Claudia — proves painful, others are more eager to speak out, including class cutie Seth (Nico Hiraga, exuding big Travis Birkenstock energy), Lucy, and a bunch of girls whom Vivian never imagined might be her friends.
Vivian’s new friends reflect the modern world, like the assertive Lucy, soccer stars Kiera (Sydney Park) and Amaya (Anjelika Washington), recently transitioned CJ (Josie Totah), and dress-code target Kaitlynn (Sabrina Haskett). As the Moxie acolytes grow, they become increasingly underwritten; in a second-act Moxie meeting, a trio of new faces never receive names or backstories (a joke lovingly parodied in the “Pitch Perfect” series, and still somehow pervasive, even in the most well-meaning of films).
Performances are uniformly solid, especially from its younger stars. And while it seems odd to call out co-star Patrick Schwarzenegger in particular for playing the film’s only obvious villain, he’s chilling and believable as big man on campus Mitchell. It’s a deeply recognizable character, the lauded football star who is a) really not very good at football, b) not particularly smart, and c) basically a huge asshole, long ago anointed as Rockport’s most popular person and still happily holding on to the title.
But while those principal characters are well-drawn, “Moxie” flails when it comes to nailing its narrative throughline. First it hinges the action on Vivian struggling with a college essay question that asks her to detail something she cares about (enter: “Moxie”!), and then gives way to a predictable plotline involving a competition with Mitchell that has major stakes for everyone. There’s other strange beats as well, like a late-night date set in a funeral home (yes, really). Even that sequence almost manages to be sweet enough to overcome the ick factor, but it adds to the sense this could have used one more polish before production.
The film’s earnest tone is usually welcome, but it does falter in the film’s final scenes, which follow the revelation of a secret that feels both obvious and far too heavy for the good-natured “Moxie.” It’s a conclusion that exemplifies both the best and worst the film has to offer: necessary lessons delivered with sneaky charm, but set against a situation in which even the most winning attitudes won’t save you. The kids already know that, but it might be time for everyone to get hip to the reality.
“Moxie” is now streaming on Netflix.