Producers: Kim Lessing, Amy Poehler and Morgan Sackett Director: Amy Poehler Screenplay: Tamara Chestna and David Hyman Cast: Hadley Robinson, Lauren Tsai, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Nico Hiraga, Sydney Park, Josephine Langford, Clark Gregg, Josie Totah, Alycia Pascual-Peña, Anjelika Washington, Charlie Hall, Sabrina Haskett, Ike Barinholtz, Amy Poehler and Marcia Gay Harden Distributor: Netflix
Amy Poehler has fashioned a likable, if somewhat overstuffed, high school-set fantasy of girl empowerment in this adaptation of Jennifer Mathieu’s 2015 YA novel. “Moxie” is more pleasant than cutting, but it makes some serious points even with a soft touch.
The plot-driving protagonist is Vivian (amiable Hadley Robinson), a shy kid who, along with her best bud since childhood, ultra-cautious Claudia (amusingly dour Lauren Tsai), aims to hunker down and be invisible while campus drama swirls under the gaze of apparently obtuse Principal Shelly (Marcia Gay Harden in comically rigorous mode).
She’s roused from her customary non-interventionist attitude, however, in the English class of gangly Mr. Davies (Ike Barinholtz), when new-kid Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña, full of righteous attitude) challenges his decision to assign “The Great Gatsby” rather than novels that would speak to her more directly, only to be smarmily shot down by arrogant campus heart-throb and football quarterback Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger, effectively shedding the straight-arrow charm of most of his earlier movies), who doesn’t hesitate to interrupt and chide condescendingly. When further evidence of the school’s casual sexism becomes apparent, Vivian opts to follow the example of her once-rebellious sister mother Lisa (Poehler, very restrained) and take a stand.
She does so by compiling a comic-book-like feminist manifesto that she titles Moxie, running off copies, and distributing them surreptitiously on campus, igniting a movement among not only the girls but a few sensitive guys like Seth (charming Nico Hiraga). At first it’s restricted to modest gestures of defiance, but escalates over time, irking ostentatiously macho dudes like Mitchell. At when Shelly appears to favor the male student body and threaten the female rebels, it hits Vivian hard, causing a rift in her relationship with her mother and her budding romance with supportive Seth.
That romance is only one of the numerous concerns that arise as the movie goes on, sometimes leading to a feeling of drift. For example, there’s the strain that the movement brings to Vivian’s relationship with Claudia, leading to a serious moment when the girl explains her deference to her demanding mother. And though Lucy unfortunately recedes somewhat into the background, a panoply of other girls with varying complaints are brought forward—the soccer team captain who isn’t given the same recognition as the quarterback, the aspirant shut out of auditions for the school musical, the full-figured girl, the cheerleader described by guys as “easy,” the transgender girl, wheelchair-bound band member.
While it’s heartening that so many forms of sexism are addressed, however perfunctorily, and that all the roles are taken by able young actresses, it does give the film a scattershot feel that becomes evident in the big rally sequence that serves as an upbeat finale at which Vivian finally embraces her role as Moxie, with a beaming Lisa looking on. It also takes a decidedly serious turn when one girl issues an accusation that brings the generally light tone that’s preceded to an abrupt halt—and leaves the matter unresolved.
Robinson anchors the movie nicely, and the rest of the cast, both youngsters and adults, acquit themselves well, with Hiraga likely to have a breakout moment as Seth. The technical side is fine, too: production designer Erin Magill gives the background an every-town look, and Tom Magill responds with crisply colorful cinematography. Julie Monroe’s editing smooths over the rough edges, and Mac McCaughan’s score, with the usual complement of pop tunes, does its job.
One can accuse “Moxie” of being a rather bland treatment of a subject that might have benefited from an edgier approach, but it still provides a reasonably good time, as well as a message worth hearing.