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Make mine ‘Moxie’

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My affection for coming-of-age stories is well-documented. I love tales of young people coming into their own and discovering themselves, growing up and finding what they’re meant to find.

These stories present their own particular brand of obstacles, however – making a good coming-of-age movie is really hard. Things can easily get bogged down, with nuance eliminated and important feelings trivialized – I love a love story, but coming of age is about far more than a first kiss (though that notion might surprise some filmmakers).

“Moxie,” the new Netflix film directed by Amy Poehler from a screenplay adapted by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer from Jennifer Mathieu’s 2015 novel of the same name, tells the story of a teenaged girl who is inspired to take action against the toxic culture of her high school by the music, writings and activist attitudes of her mother’s own high school experience.

All in all, it’s a decent effort. Shaggy and a little lumpy and perhaps a touch reductive, but it’s got more pros than cons. It’s a good-faith effort to show young women trying to effect change in the world, and while it occasionally gets a little glib or too try-hard (and the third-act wrap-up is a bit much), the filmmakers obviously sought to celebrate that effort.

Sixteen-year-old Vivien (Hadley Robinson, TV’s “Utopia”) lives in the Pacific Northwest with her mother Lisa (Amy Poehler, TV’s “Duncanville”). She’s a shy girl who spends most of her time hanging out with her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai, TV’s “Legion”) and trying to figure out what she’s going to write for her admissions essay to Berkeley.

In her English class, she sits next to Seth (Nico Haraga, “North Hollywood”), an old friend who might be becoming something more. During a class discussion initiated by Mr. Davies (Ike Barinholtz, “The Hunt”), Vivien’s attention is captured by Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena, TV’s “Saved by the Bell”) as she is talked over and shut down by Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger, “Echo Boomers”), the smug and entitled captain of the football team.

It’s not long before we see just how permissive an environment has been created for Mitchell and his football-playing cohort; they suffer no consequences for their actions, even when those actions are reported to Principal Shelly (Marcia Gay Harden, “Pink Skies Ahead”).

A frustrated and angry Vivien is at a loss for what to do until she happens upon some of her mom’s old stuff. An evening of listening to Bikini Kill and flipping through a collection of old zines leads Vivien to an obvious conclusion – start a zine of her own. And thus, Moxie is born.

Vivien prints and distributes Moxie herself, leaving it in the girls’ bathrooms at school and remaining anonymous regarding her involvement. A movement quickly blooms, with many of the school’s young women drawn to the message of inclusion and equity (not to mention the thinly-or-not-at-all-veiled shots taken at Mitchell and some of the other habitual offenders).

A lot of people want to shut Moxie down and find out who is behind it. And even as the attention mounts, Vivien finds herself struggling to stay close to the people who matter most as Moxie begins to take over. Is she strong enough to hold on and finish what she started?

There’s an earnestness at the heart of “Moxie” that could have been cloying, but Poehler and company manage to maintain their sincerity without ever coming off as overly sincere. It’s a genuine effort to look at the world high school girls are expected to navigate today – a heightened version of that world, to be sure, but one crafted with honesty and goodwill.

It’s a story of one person trying to make a difference, as well as what it means when that effort doesn’t work, at least not the way in which you intended. It’s a look at dusting yourself off after a defeat and redoubling commitment to a cause. While Vivien took her inspiration from the riot grrrl movement of the early ‘90s, the point is that how you are inspired matters less than how you inspire.

Poehler is making some interesting choices as she moves forward into the directorial realm. “Moxie” is very different from her first time in the feature chair; with 2019’s “Wine Country,” she could often just aim the camera and let her talented cast cook, but here, you have a much younger and less experienced cast. You can feel it when a filmmaker’s self bleeds into the frame; that definitely happens here, to the film’s benefit.

It’s a delightful cast; the youngsters in particular do some great work. Robinson bears up well under the weight of carrying the film; she’s got an underlying sweetness that juxtaposes nicely with her activist turn. She could be a star in the making. Pascual-Pena is a boisterous, broad bundle of energy; she practically crackles on screen. Tsui is pitch-perfect as the put-open and uptight best friend. Haraga is charming as hell as the smart and supportive Seth; he has a puppy dog quality that renders him both adorable and eminently rootable. We get good turns from Sabrina Haskett, Sydney Park, Anjelika Washington and Josie Totah as well. And then there’s Patrick Schwarzenegger, who is exquisitely detestable as Mitchell; he’s a 21st century John Hughes villain, a Spader-on-steroids that may well inspire a visceral dislike – he did for me.

The grown-ups are fine as well, though they handle less of the load. Poehler brings an exasperated-but-still-kinda-cool mom vibe to the proceedings. Harden is perfect as the uptight and officious Principal Shelly, while Barinholtz gives us his usual sardonicism (it mostly works, but his arc is muddy).

“Moxie” is a story of empowerment, and while it might ring false in a few spots and fall flat in a few others, there’s no question that more than makes up for its flaws with stronger performances and unwavering enthusiasm. In short? This “Moxie” has got moxie.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 08 March 2021 10:58

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