At Rockport High School a growing number of girls are alarmed by the aggressively sexist behaviour of the boys. Meanwhile the school is guilty of double-standards when it comes to their treatment of girls. Inspired by mom Lisa's (Amy Poehler) rebellious past, shy introvert Vivian (Hadley Robinson) anonymously authors a zine called "Moxie!" drawing attention to these injustices. New girl at school Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena), whose mistreatment by Rockport’s star jock Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger) first inspired Vivian’s activism, brings her into a band of similarly aggrieved young women looking for a way to change things for the better. Still reluctant to reveal her identity Vivian continues printing new issues of Moxie, empowering other girls to fight for what is right. Even when it seems like an uphill battle.
Comedian Amy Poehler's second directorial outing is a feisty feel-good teen film that boldly tackles those twin troll-baiting topics: feminism and social activism. Given the tenor of our times Moxie will likely offend a select group of people. Yet rather than a stern lecture on the evils inherent in the patriarchy Poehler's sweet-natured high school comedy, based on the acclaimed Y.A. novel by Jennifer Mathieu, tackles its tricky subject matter with a common sense humanity and even-handedness. Laced with just the right layer of acerbic wit. Poehler deftly interweaves an engaging Capra-esque social comedy with a sweet teenage love story between heroine Vivian and "woke male ally" skater bro Seth Acosta (Nico Hiraga) that charmingly subverts traditional rom-com gender roles whilst posing a number of timely and provocative questions. Moxie justly chastens misogyny in all its forms along with notions of sexual entitlement prevalent among select groups of young men. However it also draws attention to a system that makes it harder to call out such behaviour or transcend social inequities. A system upheld not just by older conservative men but, as the film makes clear, also women that might otherwise identify themselves as feminists.
What elevates Moxie above many a superficial right-on treatise is that it acknowledges the complexities inherent in feminism and social justice and makes that a key plot point. Some took Poehler to task for focusing primarily on Vivian, a straight white girl, while supposedly sidelining the black, Asian, LGBTQ or disabled characters that also inhabit the narrative. However one could argue Poehler is smart and sensitive enough to know she is not the right person to tell a story from their perspective. What she does instead is use their presence as a means to open Vivian's eyes. Our protagonist is so caught up in righteous indignation she fails to see she is part of the problem. Initially Vivian's newfound activism alienates her seemingly more conservative childhood friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai). Yet, as Claudia points out, Jessica's race and cultural background grants her a relatively privileged position in society. Consequently she has little understanding of cultures where women have a lot more to lose when standing up for an ideal. Happily Claudia finds a way to contribute to the cause.
Meanwhile the film further confronts Vivian with a range of characters each with a spectrum of perspectives on feminism. Lucy wants to put an end to harassment but also expand the school curriculum, correctly assuming a broader education can eradicate ignorance. Soccer captain Kiera (Sydney Park) is frustrated that Mitchell is sure to land the school athletics scholarship even though her team wins all their games. Kaitlynn (Sabrina Haskett) is tired of being chastened for dressing provocatively. Even seemingly picture perfect cheerleader captain Emma (Josephine Langford) hides a secret pain the other girls almost overlook because she is beautiful and popular. Rather than a monolith, Moxie presents feminism as it truly exists: in many forms and from multiple perspectives. Not always conforming to the clichéd image (or in Seth's case, not even female) yet all equally valid.
The climax arguably overreaches trying to tackle a plethora of significant gender inequalities and moral issues with a neat feel-good finale. Yet it is easy to be cynical. As a study of how art can shine a light on social ills and empower both creator and consumers, Moxie pulls off a near-impossible feat. It is affecting, uplifting and funny.