There is a line in “Moxie,” Amy Poehler’s new Netflix film, about celebrating “the end of the mediocre white dude’s chokehold on success.” As a strictly mediocre white dude, I applaud sentiment and simultaneously note that anything I write below about where the movie falls flat may very well sound like sour grapes. All I can do is assure you that I don’t feel resentment. Whether you believe me hinges upon a number of factors, but as I’ve never lied here, I can do no more than point to my track record.
The film’s tale, which has a script from Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer (based on the novel by Jennifer Mathieu), follows a diverse group of teenage girls in high school as they fight against anyone and everyone (men or women) who hold them back in ways both big and small. Poehler’s movie is a trumpet call in a world that, I hope, is increasingly filled with a full orchestra issuing complementary notes. No single work can ever offer up the full range of voices from which we need to hear; at best, they can offer a portion of them. “Moxie” does just that – it gives us pieces of the full picture and not always successfully at that.
To get it out of the way early on, the biggest problem the movie faces is the genre in which it finds itself. This is a movie about high schoolers and coming of age. It is a dramedy and it wants to have funny moments while still providing the full weight of teenage problems. It is over the top in its presenting some issues, but also makes the deft turn into serious and weighty territory. The main character, Vivian (Hadley Robinson), begins her fight by starting an underground magazine and it is during this time, as people rally around the magazine and its unknown author (she keeps her identity a secret as best she can), that the turn occurs.
Early in “Moxie” we are offered the sense of a comically terrible school administration and faculty, depicted largely in the form of Marcia Gay Harden’s Principal Shelly and Ike Barinholtz’s teacher, Mr. Davies. While the latter is simply out of his depth dealing with problems, the former allows chauvinistic teenage boys to publish a list of horrible superlatives judging the girls at the school. She is a woman who supports the objectively awful football captain, Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), no matter what he does. For a movie that feels as though it takes place in the real world, it is impossible to believe that an administrator is as incompetent as Shelly.
After the turn towards more dramatic moments and some great discussions, the movie, unfortunately, overreaches as it approaches its climax, bringing in a discussion of the rape of a student and Vivian trying to figure out how to best utilize her magazine to provide some sort of solace/closure/power for the victim. Staging a walkout, Vivian finds huge success and there is a triumphant dance party conclusion to the movie. One hopes the victim is on her way to recovery and gains something from coming forward, but she—and the rape—are too quickly dismissed. The rape feels like a tool used to drive Vivian towards success and to force Shelly into action and the dance party afterwards seemingly exists to make us feel as though everything is now okay, everything is better. Stopping for a minute to contemplate what we’ve just witnessed certainly makes that feel untrue.
This ending is made worse by the fact that Poehler and company manage to mostly get past the other initial stumbling block of the film – the fact that the lead character is white and so many of those around her are people of color. Vivian only starts the magazine because she witnesses a new student of color, Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña), being harassed by Mitchell and no one standing up to help her. It is a difficult proposition to center the white Vivian as the champion of this group of a diverse group of girls (including those played by Lauren Tsai, Sydney Park, and Anjelica Washington), but eventually the film brings that discussion to the fore.
This is a movie which does so much so well. It gives us the regular difficulties of being a teenager in terms of the struggles with friends maybe growing apart and the initial questioning moments of a relationship (for Vivian this takes the form of Nico Hiraga’s Seth). It gives us the added difficulties of living in a single parent household (Poehler plays Vivian’s mother, Lisa) as the only child. It gives us the potential awkwardness of a single parent dating someone new (Clark Gregg is the presumed beau). It gives us the pull of alcohol for teenagers. It makes these problems real while still offering them as outsized issues appropriate to teenage life. Then it adds in this massively difficult thing to tackle, sexism, while noting that the fight hasn’t progressed as much as it should have since the days when Lisa was young. And it does it all very well. Robinson is excellent in the role as are the other teens (particularly Pascual-Peña and Hiraga), but trying to tackle the horrors of rape in the way the movie does and quickly moving on to a celebratory conclusion makes things feel hollow.
I’m left with the sense that “Moxie” attempts to do so much because it feels like there are too few voices out there. However, it is wrong to ask a single film to do the impossible. This is a movie that is so good and so smart about so much, but tries to shoot the moon and comes up a card or two short.
photo credit: Netflix