This story contains spoilers for Moxie, now streaming on Netflix.
About 30 minutes into Moxie, I paused to wonder if I was approaching it all wrong. Something about Amy Poehler’s movie, adapted from Jennifer Mathieu’s 2017 novel of the same name, was rubbing me the wrong way. Was I being too cynical about an earnest movie about teenage girls finding their voices? Or was the movie itself lacking in some way?
Poehler, who produced and directed the film, would probably pick option A. In a recent interview with the New York Times, she said that she loves “leaning into earnestness because people hate it.”
“The way it makes them squirm, I really dig,” she added.
But earnest doesn’t have to mean broad, and unfortunately, Moxie can’t tell the difference. The film, available to stream on Netflix now, loosely centres on Vivian (Hadley Robinson), a high school senior who survives by flying under the radar. She has her best friend, Claudia (Lauren Tsai), good grades, and a Cool Mom (Poehler) — so who cares if no one else knows she exists? In fact, in a school where a cartoonishly villainous captain of the football team Mitchell (Patrick Schwartzenegger) reigns supreme, maybe it’s better for Vivian not to be on the radar. But that was before she met Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña), a new girl who, benefitting from fresh eyes, calls out Mitchell’s frankly sociopathic behaviour to the school principal (another cookie-cutter villain played by Marcia Gay Harden), only to be told that she’s overreacting.
Suddenly, Vivian isn’t content with the status quo: Why should guys get to dole out superlatives like “Most Obedient,” “Most Bangable,” “Best Ass,” and “Best Rack,” to the women in their class? Why should she be the one to remain invisible? Inspired by the ‘90s zines she finds hidden in one of her third-wave feminist mom’s old suitcases, Vivian decides to create one of her own, to inspire other students like her to stand together in solidarity. Thus, “Moxie” is born.
On the surface, Moxie has all the elements of a movie celebrating Gen Z. The cast is diverse, the love interest (Vivian’s boyfriend Seth, played by a delightful Nico Hiraga) is woke, and it all ends in a rallying cry for change. But some of these points — especially the final climax — feel superficial and perfunctory, like they came out of a corporate brainstorm.
What’s frustrating is that Moxie actually has an abundance of interesting stories to tell, but it rarely explores them with any sort of depth. Vivian becomes a de facto leader in a movement — called the Moxie Club — that includes Lucy, who is Afro-Latinx; Claudia, who is of Chinese descent; a trans student, CJ (Josie Totah); and two Black women: soccer star Kiera (Sydney Park) and her best friend Amaya (Anjelika Washington).
The movie acknowledges that past generations of feminists, represented by Poehler herself, have been woefully oblivious to their white privilege, and stresses the need for intersectionality. Having said that — literally and often — the story continues to revolve around Vivian’s struggle. Moxie uses its supporting characters as symbols of inclusivity, suggesting that they matter just as much without ever proving it by digging into any of their stories. Mitchell’s vicious and continual harassment of Lucy, for example, is treated less as part of her own arc, and more as a catalyst in Vivian’s growth. A devastating rape narrative thrown in as a late in the game plot twist is left completely unexplored save for how it changes the group’s perception of Vivian when she helps the survivor. When someone has to take the fall for a radical Moxie club prank carried out by Vivian, it’s Claudia who reaps the consequences.
Nina Janina Charuza’s custom illustrated zines are genuine works of art — but Moxie only ever hints at their significance. (Nor do we get to see enough of them!) Why do these young women feel the need to return to a more organic and radical form of feminist communication? Do they feel left out by shiny millennial pink slogans about empowerment and high-profile celebrity campaigns? Or do they really live in a self-contained universe where the #MeToo movement hasn’t pierced the suburban bubble? The absence of modern teen staples like TikTok — and indeed any sort of digital communication at all — is so notable as to demand an explanation.
It’s a shame too, because the movie does have very talented actors at its disposal. Robinson is endearing and funny, and she and Hiraga have palpable chemistry. Park delivers real emotion as Kiera, who’s faced with the injustice of having to compete with Mitchell for a sports scholarship, despite her team repeatedly outperforming his own. Josephine Langford, who plays popular girl Emma, hints at hidden depths without saying a word. And Totah and Pascual-Peña, who both shine in Peacock’s Saved By The Bell reboot, are tiresomely underused.
There are some great moments here and there: A Bikini Kill-scored dance scene towards the end of the movie is eye-poppingly gorgeous, full of glitter, laughter, and joy. A set by a real-life preteen punk band, The Linda Lindas, is genuinely killer. (You can watch them in action here.) Moxie also deftly captures the frustrations of fighting a system too slow and entrenched to change. Vivian and her friends seem to constantly hit up against a wall of complicit adults who say they hear them one second, only to go back to business as usual the next.
In some ways, maybe Poehler is right. Earnestness does make people uncomfortable. But it’s her own — not that of the teens she’s portraying — that’s on display here. Deep down, I kept waiting for Moxie to poke a little fun at itself. Vivian’s classic (and relatable) teenage belief that she is the only person at her school — nay, the universe — to ever have these thoughts is ripe for parody. A sharper, better movie would address the absurdity of one teen thinking she is the lone standard-bearer for the revolution and the saviour of her BIPOC friends. Instead, Moxie buys right into it. The film goes out of its way to state that its mission is to subvert old tropes about white privilege and white saviours, and yet, when push comes to shove, its actions speak louder than words.
Ultimately, Moxie feels less like a rebellious outcry from young women, and more like a bunch of adults patting themselves on the back for noticing the changes happening around them. That’s not earnest — it’s oblivious.