Old white guys giving young women advice about feminism isn’t a great look, but Moxie is a flawed but spirited film that deserves a serious appraisal. For Parks and Rec star turned director Amy Poehler, this Netflix film fills a gap in her development that Mean Girls does for her co-awards host Tina Fey; both SNl alumni targeting a teen audience with a sparky YA adaptation, this one from a book by Jennifer Mathieu. There’s an early awards riff as the female character discuss a boys’ online ranking of the girls, and Mean Girls even gets a shout-out, in a discussed Halloween costume, but Moxie doesn’t have the iconic feel of Fey’s film. Moxie does have, well, Moxie, or pizzazz, or chutzpah, or whatever that magic ingredient that makes a good watch, and even if the narrative eventually jumps the shark in terms of contrivance, the film’s heart seems to be in the right place.
Vivian (Hadley Robinson) is navigating a jock-ordinated high-school, where her one-time riot grrrl mother Lisa (Poehler) imagines her friends very much as they were ten years previously. Vivian soon falls in with a woke crowd by dint of her anonymous authorship of a paper newsletter called Moxie. Moxie, the publication calls out sexism, and locates a widely ignored fissure that runs through the student body. But it also serves as a mechanism for calling the girls to arms, mobilising them to action, and leading her friend Kiera (Sydney Park) to stand in a class election against popular Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger).
Vague spoiler alert, Mitchell wins, but by a mechanism that the girls did not realise was available to them. That lack of faculty encouragement or even awareness is important to the way the film shows the girls having genuine agency, but shut down by the system. A scene-setter shows Principal Shelley (Marcia Gay Harden) deliberately guiding a pupil through a sexual harassment complaint in such a way as to avoid paperwork and rocking the boat; it’s an un-showy scene that smacks of experience. So we know what Vivian and her friends are up against; the weak link here is that their eventual success comes through a hokey plot twist that uses an (off-screen) rape as a sub-plot.
Moxie steers adeptly away from being too issue based; Ike Barnholtz has a nice bit as a lazy teacher who is turned on by debating the relevance of The Great Gatsby to his class without noticing much about the class in front of him. But depicting the whistle-blowing as a public catharsis, undertaken without damage, does something of a disservice to those brave enough to do so; Moxie goes to great lengths to depict real issues, but the manner in which they are resolves feels too easily won. Having weighed many other issues with reasonable gravity, Moxie could have used an extra ten minutes to make this revelation more than a sitcom plot point. That aside, this is a likable, sprightly debut from Poehler, who works well with her young cast and generally makes the title a good description of the contents of her film.