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Moxie

Posted April 5, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Better get comfy now, gentle readers, because you might not be comfortable for very long. We’ve got a lot to unpack with this one.

Moxie (produced and directed by Amy Poehler, of all people) is a coming-of-age story focused on Vivian, played by Hadley Robinson. She’s a socially withdrawn high school junior who’s struggling with her college application essay because she can’t really decide what she believes in or why. And one look at her high school perfectly shows why she’s having trouble with that.

The film’s portrayal of high school is perfectly summed up with a background sight gag in one of the classrooms. Depending on the orientation of the text, there’s a sign that could alternately be read as “You matter, don’t give up” or “You don’t matter, give up.” It’s exactly the kind of half-assed, half-hearted, almost willfully misguided attempt at perfunctory pep talk that the whole high school was built on.

For the students and faculty alike, high school is a thing to be endured. The students are only there to pick up their degree and go to college or a job somewhere else. The teachers are only there to pick up a paycheck and go home. Everyone wants nothing more than to keep their heads down and do the bare minimum without making waves. Oh, and because this particular high school has a pirate mascot, there’s an unspoken social contract that everyone has to pretend pirate puns are always the height of comedy.

[Side note: The film was shot in LA, but there’s a “PNW” sign clearly visible in Vivian’s room. I also caught flags for the state of Oregon and U of O in the background of some shots. It appears that the fictional setting of Rockport High School is supposed to be in one of the larger Oregon towns outside the Willamette Valley. Based on the location of a Rockport shopping mall, my best educated guess would be Lincoln City. Though a town like Medford or Ashland — closer to northern California — would be plausible.]

Into all this comes Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) a new student and a young black woman who’s notably outspoken about her woke modern morality. In the other corner is Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger — yes, it’s his son), a jock who is naturally threatened by anything that challenges his social privilege as a handsome white man. Mitchell bullies Lucy, Lucy stands her ground, nobody on the faculty has the spine to do anything, and all Vivian can do is offer the same cliched claptrap about ignoring the bully so he can be someone else’s problem.

Right out the gate, this movie hits hard and fast with the portrayal of our white patriarchal paradigm as a broader systemic issue. The filmmakers are very clear in portraying a system that doesn’t even want to recognize any kind of abuse or inequality, for fear of damaging the shiny happy facade and dealing with the responsibility of actually doing something. Though to be entirely fair, this is such a hugely turbulent time and the rules are changing so constantly, even those acting in good faith can have a rough time figuring out how to be a better ally, with the very real risk of doing more harm than good in the process. How can we do anything when it seems like the only winning move is not to play?

And to be clear, when I say “patriarchy”, that doesn’t mean this is limited to the male authority figures. Yes, Ike Barinholtz is on hand to play a snarky disaffected jerk like only Barinholtz can do. But we’ve also got Marcia Gay Harden on hand to play the school’s principal, deliberately shrugging off harassment claims brought forward by a young black woman because she’d much rather give condescending lip service than actually go out of her way to do something. It’s really quite bold of the filmmakers to bring in a female principal — especially one played by an actor of Harden’s caliber — to drive home the point that ignorance, apathy, and misuse of power aren’t limited to any one gender. In a system built to protect and empower men (particularly white men), women are equally capable of dragging down themselves and other women by simply doing nothing.

Speaking of which, the filmmakers go out of their way to show us the “Best Principal Award” that proudly sits on the principal’s desk like a giant crystal phallus at all times. Seriously, as a director, Poehler has a killer knack for visual jokes. For that matter, Poehler shows a similarly uncanny flair for needle drops. Of course we have such self-explanatory songs as “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill, but that one is immediately followed up by a high school pep band arrangement of “Knock on Wood” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. I looked up the lyrics to see if there might’ve been some hidden meaning as to why that particular song might’ve been chosen, and uh…

I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested.
I’d like to think that if I was I would pass.
Look at the tested, and think there but for the grace go I.
Might be a coward, I’m afraid of what I might find out.

…Whoo boy. Asked and answered.

Getting back to the point, even on an individual level, it’s easy to understand where the characters are coming from. In fact, it’s frankly terrifying how easy it is to understand how some characters are being actively harmful in subtle, almost imperceptible ways. Practically every scene is filled to the brim with everyday microaggressions that we might ignore or fail to recognize in the real world, though the filmmakers call out these offhand remarks for the racist sexist bullshit that they are. So yeah, the movie sets itself up early and often as a hardcore feminist work aimed directly at the white patriarchy.

Oh, and all of this is just within the first act. The plot hasn’t even really started yet.

Long story short (too late!), the sexist bullshit piles up until Vivian is finally moved to try something. Lucy is a vital catalyst, of course, but Vivian also draws inspiration from her mother (Lisa, played by Amy Poehler herself), who had a long history of revolutionary feminism back in her youth. Following her mother’s example, Vivian writes and publishes an anonymous zine — titled “Moxie” — printing out copies to spread all over her high school.

Obviously, this results in an equal and opposite reaction, with unexpected results.

On the one hand, it turns out that there were an unexpected number of students at Rockport High who were fed up with the status quo, and Vivan unwittingly gave them a voice. She even gave herself a voice in the process, discovering a new confidence and a connection with so many classmates she never socialized with before, Lucy among the rest.

On the other hand, of course Mitchell and his primeval ilk give no end of shit to the zine and its supporters. But what’s perhaps most surprising is the rift that it drives between Vivian and her childhood best friend (Claudia, played by Lauren Tsai). It turns out that when the chips are down, Claudia is the type who’s deathly afraid of getting into trouble or making herself a target. Claudia and Vivian had a friendship that was built on staying together and under everyone else’s radar, and it’s clear that Vivian outgrew that before Claudia did. Then again, Vivian grew up with a revolutionary feminist mother while Claudia’s mom is more the “tyrannical and overbearing” type. Even better, the film actively plays the race card — because Claudia is the daughter of immigrants who sacrificed so much to be in this country, she’s playing by a different set of rules than her white best friend. This is some legitimately great tension built on the individual growth of these two characters.

There’s also the tiny little detail that Vivian now has a massive secret that she’s keeping from everyone else. A secret that could literally compromise her safety if it ever got out. So of course she has to keep it from all her friends and classmates, which might prematurely fracture any friendships — new or old — that she might have.

Furthermore, Vivian (and all of our teenage characters, in point of fact) have to learn that the rules are different in high school. Nobody’s going to prison over violating the dress code. Nobody in the real world could give less of a shit about that one time some kid got sent home from school. All these petty bullshit rules are put in place for no reason except to make everyone feel comfortable, but putting these kids into such tight boxes only holds them back in the long run. Barring anything that’s an actual felony (and we do brush right up against that line in the back half), they’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain by asserting their independence, and there’s no doubt it will make them into more empowered and compassionate adults further down the line.

More importantly, Vivian and her fellow Moxie girls engage in various socially charged battles of political activism as the plot unfolds. When they win, it feels like they’re all-powerful. When they lose, it feels like the whole world was ending and it was all for nothing. And because these are teenagers we’re talking about, those mood swings are violent and extreme. Even so, these kids are learning the hard way — and at an early age — that in politics, the conflict never ends. You win some, you lose some, but you always get back up and keep fighting with the hope that that you might leave behind something worth a damn for the next generation to pick up.

Let’s see, am I missing anything? Oh right, the love interests.

The big one is Seth (Nico Haraga), who went through a massive growth spurt over the summer and finally became a halfway attractive skateboarder. This is Vivian’s new crush, who eventually becomes her new boyfriend. What’s more, Seth proves himself to be a model feminist, a genuinely nice guy who does everything he can to help the Moxie movement without ever making it about himself. In fact, Seth seemed so perpetually too good to be true that I went through the whole movie fearing the bait-and-switch that would turn him into a total asshole (see also: Bo Burnham in Promising Young Woman). But no, the film never pulls that. Instead, he’s one more good thing that came to Vivian through Moxie, and one more thing that she could potentially lose if it all goes wrong. Nicely done.

The other love interest of note is Clark Gregg in the role of John, a coworker who eventually becomes Lisa’s boyfriend. The character doesn’t get a whole lot of screentime, but it’s Clark Gregg — one look at this perfectly unassuming yet effortlessly charming guy tells you everything you need to know about him and why Vivian’s mom would start going out with him.

The John/Lisa romance starts picking up around the third act, which is of course exactly when Vivian is heading toward her lowest and darkest point. Suffice to say, her mom’s new boyfriend drives a sizable wedge between Vivian and her mother, and Vivian comes out looking all the worse because she’s lashing out in selfish anger at freaking Clark Gregg.

Poehler is delightful in her role and she has some fine banter with Robinson, but I simply couldn’t get a handle on the relationship between the characters. We often see them going out together for grocery shopping and going out for dinner, yet we also watch Vivian brush off her mom with so many snarky wisecracks. Vivian drew so much inspiration from her mother through this whole zine project, but there’s not an ounce of that same admiration or respect in their scenes together. Vivian will confide in her mom about the latest school gossip, but she won’t tell her mom the big secret about Moxie even though she has literally nothing to lose and everything to gain from doing so. Even with the understanding that we’re talking about the complicated and tempestuous relationship between a teenage girl and her mother, there’s no internal logic or consistency here.

But somewhere around the climax, I remembered that Vivian started out as a young woman who kept her head down, bottled up her emotions, and never let anything happen to her. And by the end of the film, a ton of shit happens to her and she’s got more emotions and beliefs than she ever knew what to do with at the start of the film. So I guess it makes a degree of sense that she’d lash out in all this misplaced anger and frustration and erratic behavior because she’s up to her neck in unfamiliar territory and freaking out about it.

Speaking of family, there’s also the matter of Claudia and her mother (played by Eon Song). We’re treated to this huge scene in which Claudia gets chewed out by her mother (it’s a long story), and it does a lot to help us understand who Claudia is and where she’s coming from. That being said, it sets up a huge confrontation in which Claudia finally stands up for herself, and we never get that moment. Bad follow-through.

Then there’s the matter of the school administration, and how their entire MO falls apart with the start of the second act. For instance, it’s been firmly established that the faculty of this school are interested in doing the absolute bare minimum and they don’t want to be bothered to actually do their jobs. But then we get a scene in which the principal — the freaking principal! — comes down from her office to interrupt an English class, just to single out a very specific girl for a minor dress code infraction. This is a level of intrusive micromanaging that is never seen before or afterwards, it’s wildly out of character for the principal, and it doesn’t follow the internal logic of the school. What the hell?!

Conversely, there’s the administration’s attitude toward Moxie itself. Aside from the odd petty and easily solved conflict, it seems like the administration is more or less okay with pretending that the zine doesn’t exist… right up until the zine takes direct aim at the principal herself. That’s finally what it takes to get anyone in charge up off their lazy asses. Gotta say, while I was expecting the hypocrisy angle to be a bigger factor so the administration could play a more prominent antagonist role, the self-serving angle the filmmakers went with isn’t bad at all. And it happens as a direct result of Vivian unwisely misusing her power of the press and lashing out in blind anger, which is a nice touch.

Moxie is a lot to take in. It took me several days to get through this one, mostly because it made me — a cis-gendered adult white male — deeply uncomfortable in all the right ways. I’m honestly grateful that I had this blog to help me work through my thoughts and feelings about every scene.

The movie is funny, it’s heartfelt, it’s incisive and whip-smart, deeply angry and defiantly hopeful in equal measure. While the film’s internal logic could’ve used a bit more polish and Vivian’s family life could’ve used some clarification, the film still succeeds beautifully as a powerful work of feminism that will hopefully enlighten and empower viewers of all ages and persuasions, but most especially teen girls. Oh, and did I mention that the cast is awesome?

This one comes STRONGLY recommended. Don’t miss it.