While Amy Poehler's Moxie may not quite have the rebellious spirit that would likely make it soar, it's a winning film with messaging and performances that keep it never less than engaging and for the most part downright entertaining. The film centers around Vivian (Hadley Robinson), an Oregon high school junior mostly content to accept her place at the near bottom of the high school social chain along lifelong BFF Claudia (Lauren Tsai).
The two peacefully co-exist, at least for the most part, alongside the jocks, cheerleaders, model wannabes, skateboarders, nerds, drama queens, and others. This is a high school like most high schools - toxic masculinity runs rampant yet any sign of female sexuality is quickly squelched by an over-zealous administration personified by a principal, played by an under-utilized Marcia Gay Harden, so doting of ultra-toxic quarterback Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger) that you practically expect to eventually see a scene that finds them in the back seat of a Buick.
For the record, that never happens.
Vivian's life is perfectly nothing, at least until she meets a new transfer student, Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena), who immediately questions the relevance of a summer reading assignment, The Great Gatsby, and promptly gets mansplained by the not quite a man Mitchell.
It doesn't go well, but Vivian is watching and she likes what she sees from the bold and brash Lucy.
There's a warmth to the film's obligatory revelation scene where Vivian really discovers her mother's riot grrrl past, a Bikini Kill-fueled rebellion that was far from perfect but inspires Vivian to do something in a life where she's never really done anything. Her mother, played with understated honesty and humor by Poehler, is given a little more depth than we usually see in these obligatory maternal roles though it's safe to say at least some of that depth comes from Poehler's intuitive performance.
Vivian ends up starting an underground feminist zine, Moxie, and leaves copies anonymously in the girls' bathroom.
A revolution is born.
The scenarios that unfold in Moxie are for the most part familiar ranging from the over-funded football team that consistently loses to the under-funded girls' soccer team that is a powerhouse. Mitchell is practically worshipped despite the "rumors," but genuinely positive role models are so humble that they're practically dismissed. For the most part, Vivian has been content to bow her head in a sort of mostly passive and not even close to aggressive submission.
Deep down, she knows something's wrong but she just wants to get through it.
Moxie is adapted from a Jennifer Mathieu novel by Dylan Meyer and Tamara Chestna. The dialogue bristles and avoids, at least for the most part, broad caricatures even with the easily caricatured Mitchell. Both Hadley Robinson and Lauren Tsai are fantastic here as lifelong BFF's, Tsai's Claudia a welcome sign of the film's awareness about the importance of intersectionality as she struggles to balance supporting her best friend, rebelling, and dealing with her own cultural expectations as the daughter of an immigrant who sacrificed everything to give her a better life.
Robinson, on the flip side, is endearingly awkward yet quietly fierce as Vivian, whose transition into rebel girl seemingly coincides with her struggling to deal with her mother's new journey into dating and her own tiptoeing into sexuality alongside hunky yet respectful skateboarder Seth (Nico Hiraga).
Moxie hits all the right notes even if those notes are rather familiar and never quite as radical as we wish they would be. This is almost a Booksmart-lite film, just as intelligent but a little more familiar and a lot less edgy despite, perhaps, having even edgier circumstances.
Alycia Pascual-Pena is a revelation as Lucy while Nico Hiraga's turn as Seth should have Hollywood knocking on his door even more than it has been since his appearance in the aforementioned Booksmart. Kudos for authentic casting, as well, with the appearance of Easterseals Disability Film Challenge vet Emily Hopper as Meg.
Moxie may not be the revolutionary film it was born to be, but it's still a strong directorial effort from Poehler and a warm, engaging film that should find an abundance of life from distributor Netflix. It's a terrific mother/daughter view and should be watched by fathers and sons, as well. With intersectionality in abundance and a heart of rebel gold, Moxie is an awful lot like most revolutions - imperfect but destined to change the world.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic