Moxie movie review: Amy Poehler's cutesy high school comedy is a clarion call to smash patriarchy
Although light and palatable, Moxie isn't shallow. It's a primer on feminist activism for teenagers just about starting to make sense of the glaring gender inequality at home and beyond.
castHadley Robinson, Lauren Tsai, Amy Poehler, Alycia Pascual-peña, Nico Hiraga, Sabrina Haskett, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sydney Park, Anjelika Washington, Emily Hopper, Josie Totah, Ike Barinholtz, Marcia Gay Harden
It is perhaps serendipitous that I happened to catch the entire 10-episode Apple TV+ series The Morning Show minutes before tuning into Moxie, the newest campus drama from the Netflix stable. Both the projects are thematically close, but their tones are starkly different. Although, to qualify Moxie as just a high school drama is reductive. Amy Poehler’s sophomore directorial feature after Wine Country follows a group of high school girls who ignite a blazing feminist movement in their school.
The stage is already set with a token American suburban high school, the breeding ground of toxic sexism and conversely, a counterculture of resistance.
Frequent collaborator Tina Fey redefined the teen comedy space with her iconic Mean Girls (2004). Although still ragingly hilarious, some may argue the film hasn’t quite aged well, with its generous dependence on the dated women-hating-women trope and treating beauty and brains as mutually exclusive aspects in a woman. Amy Poehler’s film is cutesier and more inspiring than funny, and is far more authentic in its treatment of its primary characters.
For characterisation alone, one may posit Moxie as one of the smartest comedy-dramas of the 21st century. Moxie is structured as a good over evil film. So the 'villains' are one-tone, familiar stock characters from 90s and early noughts comedy movies — the orthodox school principal (Marcia Gay Harden), the popular dude aka asshole (Patrick Schwarzenegger), the clueless/ disinterested class teacher (Ike Barinholtz) — who may or may not have a sudden change of heart. It’s Poehler’s hark-back to the genre. However, the lack of depth and individuality of these characters is deliberate; they collectively come to signify the allegorical evil, the conceptual amorality.
The good, on the other hand, is not depicted in homogenous or absolute terms. They all have individual personalities and their own battles. Vivian Carter (Hadley Robinson) is the shy introvert who perceives wrongdoing but finds her voice when fellow-classmate Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) challenges the school jock Mitchell Wilson’s (Schwarzenegger) bullish behaviour. When Vivian learns her mother was once an activist herself, inspired, she pours her anger and frustration against the status quo in a zine she calls Moxie. Anonymously created, Vivian makes "a shitload of copies" and leaves them inside the girls' washroom. As more and more students, silenced by administrative coercion and manipulation, discover Moxie, they come forward to band together and voice their dissent against authority. The group consists of Lucy, Vivian’s best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai), Kiera (Sydney Park) and Amaya (Anjelika Washington), two talented athletes routinely discriminated against, Kaitlynn (Sabrina Haskett), a girl ranked as “best rack” by her male classmates on social media and CJ (Josie Totah), a trans girl not allowed to audition for the role of Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors.
Although predominantly palatable and light, Moxie is not shallow. It's a primer on feminist activism for teenagers just about starting to make sense of the glaring gender inequality at home and beyond. It introduces complex ideas of identity and self-worth with the inherent sweetness and relentless optimism of the genre. Poehler achieves perfect balance to recreate the real-world scenarios inside the comfort of teenage comedy, making sure at every juncture that her target audience is never alienated. Moxie is earnest and insightful, and its characters are injected with enough genuineness so that their emotions and actions never feel manufactured. Vivian's confusion over whether to follow her instinct and call out the serial wrongdoers, or evade the spotlight lest she become the target of the school bully, feels as organic as the rage of a girl on being singled out and categorically disallowed to wear tank tops.
Which is precisely why the film feels much too candy-coloured for this hardened-by-the-world writer. Make no mistake, it was appropriately enjoyable while it lasted, but once over, it was quite impactless. In comparison, The Morning Show, which also deals with themes of institutional abuse and the culture of silence, is far more — for the lack of a better word — adult.
Notwithstanding, Moxie may steer clear of 13 Reasons Why-sanctioned grittiness, but it still has the hopefulness that a pandemic-ridden world may need now more than ever. And whoever can resist the incandescent charm of Amy Poehler and Clark Gregg flirting with each other over grocery supplies.
Rating: 3.75 out of 5
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