“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.