At one point in Netflix’s new Amy Poehler-directed movie Moxie, a group of teenage girls gather in a private room during a party to vent about the douchey boys at their school. One of them shuffles a deck of playing cards, realization dawning on her face.
“You know what I just realized? The king is worth more than the queen,” she says, with the air of someone discovering the greatest secrets of the universe. “Why? The queen is the best.”
That weirdly contrived wokeness bogs Moxie down, even though it’s an otherwise sweet, empowering film about one girl gaining the self-confidence to stand up for herself and her peers. Poehler and the writers try to balance a wide range of issues, but fail to meaningfully integrate them into the story. That sometimes makes Moxie feel like a checklist of artificial social awareness.
[Ed. note: This review contains slight spoilers for Moxie.]
Based on a 2015 YA novel of the same name, Moxie follows shy high-school junior Vivian (Hadley Robinson) who grows increasingly fed up with the sexist culture at her school. Every year, a group of popular boys, led by football captain Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger, who pulls off the charming-douchebag role with almost alarming finesse), roll out a ranking of female students, giving them degrading titles like “Most Bangable” and “Best Rack.” When new student Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) dares to speak up against Mitchell, she gets blasted on the list. Fueled by this attack, and a Bikini Kill song her mom (Amy Poehler) played for her at one point — Vivian pours all her rage into a zine she dubs “Moxie,” and plasters it all over her school.
The connection between Vivian randomly remembering the lyrics to “Rebel Girl” and finding her mom’s old stash of zines, then creating her own zine, is thin. (Especially since she never actually… talks to her mom about it.) But generally, it’s satisfying to see Vivian’s evolution from shy wallflower to leader emboldened by anonymity. As more of the school — boys included — starts to catch on to the zine’s call to action, they draw Sharpie hearts and stars on their hands to signify solidarity. Soon, Moxie grows from a one-woman anonymous publication into a core group of students rallying for change. It’s definitely refreshing to see a wide variety of girls pulled into the mix — and not just the outsiders, as popular student Kaitlynn (Sabrina Haskett) and soccer captain Kiera (Sydney Park) join in as well.
Some individual parts of Moxie, however, just come off as awkward and out of place. That queen-and-king line isn’t the only clunky dialogue. Lucy complains that her assigned English reading only consists of books by rich white dudes — which might have more impact if the first episode of Netflix Original Ginny & Georgia didn’t have a very similar scene, airing just a few weeks ago. There are also weird framing devices in the beginning — a nightmare Vivian has of being unable to scream, as well as her uncannily relevant college essay question — that immediately disappear, only to be randomly referenced near the end of the movie.
But the movie’s greatest disservice is how it has all the pieces in place to really examine intersectionality, and instead ultimately falls flat. At the end of the day, it’s more a story about Vivian than about Moxie. Vivian never meaningfully comes to terms with the fact that she inherently benefits from privileges that her friends do not: she’s white, able-bodied, and cisgender. She’s surrounded by a diverse cast, but those characters don’t have their own agency — they’re only in place to boost Moxie’s wokeness (and therefore Vivian’s). Even in places where other characters take the lead, the film sticks to Vivian’s limited point of view: Moxie pits Kiera against Mitchell for an athletic scholarship, but after the fallout, the focus isn’t on Kiera. It’s on Vivian’s sadness and frustration, which she takes out on other characters, like her new boyfriend (Nico Hiraga) and her mother.
Her relationship with her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) brings this across most directly. Unlike the other girls involved in Moxie, Claudia comes from a first-generation Chinese family — because her mother has worked tirelessly for her education, Claudia feels immense pressure to succeed, and can’t risk suspension the way Vivian can. Vivian fails to realize this, even though she and Claudia have been best friends their entire lives, and she gets increasingly frustrated with Claudia for not joining in on Moxie’s more rebellious activities. Claudia does eventually call Vivian out for her callous behaviour, but Vivian never offers more than a mumbled apology. By the end of the movie, though, any tensions have been dropped.
To Moxie’s credit, Vivian’s selfish attitude does eventually get addressed, but it specifically focuses on how rude she’s being to her mother. This could be a meaningful emotional thread, except that for most of the film, their relationship is sidelined, only really ramping up at the end for the sake of emotional catharsis. It’s easier to patch up a simple mother-daughter misunderstanding — especially since Vivian was inspired by her mom’s rebel days — than it is for the heroine to consider her own self-centeredness and make personal amends to her friends.
Poehler and the filmmakers imbue Moxie with triumphant moments of the girls uniting, though by trying to be more socially aware, they end up not actually doing much with their diverse cast. Overall, though, the film is definitely a net positive: full of gleeful moments of victory, sweet and specific character relationships, and a singular character arc that is mostly satisfying to watch unfold. The issue isn’t that Moxie plays into bad tropes — for the most part, it doesn’t. It’s just that Poehler and the crew have all the pieces of something greater, and they don’t assemble them in the ways that would make the most impact.
Moxie is now streaming on Netflix.