While Amy Poehler’s directorial debut, Wine Country, found humor in women growing older, her sophomore effort, Moxie, finds the heartache in girls growing up. This high-school dramedy, which premieres tomorrow on Netflix, is a sweet tale of girl power fitting for Women’s History Month. It’s hard to criticize the film because its heart is in the right place, but you can’t help but cringe as it preaches.
Based on the book by Jennifer Mathieu, Moxie is written by Tamara Chestna (After) and Dylan Meyer (XOXO). And writing-wise, it certainly starts off strong. In the first classroom scene, a Black student named Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) asks why students are still made to read books about privileged white characters like The Great Gatsby.
“If the point is to learn about the American dream, we should be reading about immigrants or the working class or Black mothers … or at least someone who doesn’t already have a mansion,” Lucy says.
Unfortunately, this attention-grabbing moment quickly grows disingenuous, as the film goes on to revolve around a privileged white character.
Despite her lifelong best friend (Lauren Tsai) being Asian and her mother (Poehler) being involved in the Riot Grrrl movement, the protagonist, Vivian (Hadley Robinson), is remarkably naive about the problematic world around her and the need for diversity. When Lucy demands a more diverse curriculum, Vivian eyes widen as if she had never considered that before. And when the school’s jocks release their annual list of female student rankings, she sheepishly utters, “That list is pretty messed up if you think about it.” It’s only when Vivian discovers she’s ranked “Most Obedient” that she seems compelled to take action.
Vivian races home from a pep rally and feverishly assembles the titular feminist zine, fashioning fiery articles that look like ransom notes. Here, Poehler employs striking visuals and frenetic editing to match Vivian’s energy.
In this age where everything floats in the digital ether, seeing hard copies of the crudely made zine spread through the school is quaint and inspiring.
Vivian chooses to remain an anonymous author, stepping aside to let Lucy and two other Black teen girls lead the Moxie movement. An Asian student named Seth (Nico Hiraga) stands as seemingly the only male student in support of the group.
While this pivot toward more diverse characters is refreshing for a while, we soon realize they’re underwritten and still on the periphery of Vivian’s story. If Moxie is a prompt to encourage white girls to become allies, then that’s a noble effort. But it too often feels like a mere celebration of a white girl becoming woke. It’s troubling that the film never substantially explores the inner lives of the diverse voices Vivian strives to amplify.
Not until nearly the end of the film do we hear Vivian’s best friend explain the cultural disconnect between them. When Vivian calls Claudia out on her reluctance to join the Moxie group’s acts of protest, Claudia fires back, “You don’t understand what’s going on with me because you’re white.” (Note that this is the only time in the film in which Vivian is told to check her white privilege.) Claudia explains that, as a young woman of color, she can’t afford to take the same risks as Vivian. This is a strong scene, but it feels like too little too late.
Another late-in-the-film revelation feels uncomfortably tacked on. When Vivian finds a girl’s anonymous message to Moxie asking for help in the wake of her rape, she calls for an all-school walkout. In this act, she aims to expose the toxic masculinity bubbling beneath the school’s halls. Perhaps if this revelation arrived earlier in a more grounded reality, it would make a bigger impact. But it feels unearned within the film’s glittery, Disney Channel world. When the anonymous messenger comes forward publicly, she makes a powerful speech, but then the film awkwardly wraps itself up in a bright bow. It plays like an after-school special episode of Girl Meets World.
Look, this film is made by well-meaning white women, and it’s clearly geared toward 14-year-old girls. It’s fine for what it is. But, like Lucy, you’ll find yourself yearning for a richer, more diverse story.