It’s been 15 years since screenwriter Tina Fey brought peace to the teenage girl world with the groundbreaking “Mean Girls.” Now it’s her frequent creative partner Amy Poehler’s turn to stride the hallways of a contemporary high school, searching for harmony and justice among the heightened emotions and high-stakes conundrums of young adults.
Marking the multi-hyphenate Poehler’s return to the director’s chair after her casually comforting “Wine Country,” the good-natured dramedy “Moxie” isn’t nearly as sharp as “Mean Girls,” lacking its hilarious wit and unwavering bite, often erring on the side of didacticism and broadness in similarly charting a fed-up young woman’s awakening against her high school’s hostile, victimizing culture. Still, it’s a welcome entry into a familiar genre that will resonate with young audiences burdened by the unwritten rules of their respective educational institutions. And that’s thanks in large part to an immensely likable ensemble cast guided by Poehler’s sure-handed energy behind the camera, as well as the film’s ambitious aims to be intersectional in its social and political themes.
“Moxie” follow in the footsteps of the vivacious “Booksmart,” the sex-positive “Blockers” and even refreshingly femsplain-y “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” as a Gen-Z-centric movie with progressive ideals around race, gender and identity. For the most part, the movie makes good on its liberal premise, even though it all conventionally resolves into a straight white character’s coming-of-age tale eventually.
Portrayed by a resolute Hadley Robinson in a zesty and graceful performance, said protagonist is Vivian, an affable, brainy, yet reserved 16-year-old determined to keep her head down through the 11th grade and beyond, until she’s safely tucked away in UC Berkeley, her dream college. But it’s hard out there for her and her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai), an equally introverted outsider joined at the hip with Vivian. The duo already seems stressed out on the first day of school — not only are they unnoticed by the cool kids, but they are also anxious about a soon-to-be-published (not to mention, extremely sexist and offensive) annual list. Who will be voted “the most bang-able?” How about “the most obedient” or the one with “the best rack?”
It takes the new student Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña), a smart and outspoken Black girl, for Claudia to finally realize that she does not have to accept this deeply misogynistic status quo. So Claudia observes Lucy as she uncompromisingly challenges the school heartthrob Mitchell Wilson (Patrick Schwarzenegger) — a bully with an insidiously manipulative demeanor — and questions the modern-day relevance of “The Great Gatsby” in class, keeping her head up high even when the school’s infuriatingly clueless principal (Marcia Gay Harden) dismisses Lucy’s complaints about Mitchell. Inspired by her mom Lisa’s (Poehler) younger days as an unruly Riot Grrrl who wanted nothing more than to topple the patriarchy, Vivian decides to start an underground zine called “Moxie” as a result, rebelliously calling attention to her school’s discriminatory ways.
Soon enough, Moxie starts a movement, first manifested by small acts of camaraderie like hand-drawn tattoos on random ink-stained arms, and then, by actual meetings and actions in protest. Determined to keep her identity as the publisher a secret, Vivian in the meantime struggles to toggle between the uprising she instigated, an immensely charming romance with the eagerly open-minded Seth (Nico Hiraga) and her faltering friendship with Claudia, who chooses to stay out of the Moxie business to avoid trouble. Complicating matters further is Vivian’s tricky relationship with her mother — disheartened and weighed down at school, the young girl grows increasingly unsure of her place in a complex ecosystem, hurting the ones that matter to her the most in the process.
Adapted from Jennifer Mathieu’s book by scribes Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, “Moxie” makes a sizable effort to fit a great deal into its under-two-hour running time. The film simultaneously tries to question the impossible standards imposed on the female body, underscore the hazards of a culture of silence, confront white privilege and in brief instances, give voice to an array of diverse players. A transgender pupil, a disabled girl and various students from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds all get their moment of visibility, sometimes rousingly so, other times, in a limiting, box-ticking fashion.
Amid such a crowded canvas, some of the movie’s most engaging characters and narrative threads get pushed to the side. For example, it’s regrettable that the script quickly abandons its interest in Lucy — the movie’s most intriguing supporting persona — and offers little more than a few photos and mementos to represent Lisa’s firebrand past, when that’s what motivated Vivian to publish her zine. Similarly, we don’t get enough time looking through the pages of Vivian’s creative DIY publication (designed by artist Nina Charuza) — if only the film had invented a “Shirkers”-style visual solution to help us savor the work that invigorates so many lives.
Despite these wrinkles, Poehler nevertheless manages to pull off something memorable: a youthful tapestry with its heart in the right place, unafraid to deal with topics as tough as rape. Embellished with a volatile soundtrack full of Bikini Kill tracks, a stirring “I am Spartacus”-type scene of solidarity among teenagers and a bubbly finale featuring Kirston Leigh Mann’s eye-popping punk costumes grooving on a vibrant dance floor, “Moxie” leaves a sweet aftertaste with its disarming love for an enviable mother-daughter relationship and the power of female friendship.