- Film: Moxie (2021)
- Director: Amy Poehler
- Cast: Hadley Robinson, Lauren Tsai, Alycia Pascual-Peña, Nico Hiraga, Sabrina Haskett, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sydney Park, Anjelika Washington
- Country/Language: USA/English
- Genre: Teen film
‘Moxie’ is a teen film that was conveniently released on Netflix in March, Women’s History Month. ‘Moxie’ is based on the book of the same name by Jennifer Mathieu and directed by TV writer Amy Poehler, creator of the beloved sitcom Parks & Recreation. The coming-of-age film is about Vivian (Hadley Robinson), an aimless high schooler who stumbles upon sexist behaviours in her school and inspired by her mother’s riot grrrl days, starts a feminist movement. Much has been lauded about this film, mostly for its depiction of female bonding in the context of teen activism. And it surely has its “Go Girl!’ moments. However, the following article is not a straightforward review of the film as much as it is a keen analysis of the screenplay and its depiction of culturally and racially diverse characters. It is best to first watch the movie before reading this article as it discusses plot points that may or may not go over the readers’ heads. Also warning: spoilers ahead.
First, the pros. It is highly commendable that a teen coming-of-age film accurately shows the grievances of Gen Z. While it is so common to see films depict dating, relationships, friendships, and issues of self-confidence and social acceptance, there are not many films showing teenagers being politically or socially involved in activism. However, one recent film that comes to mind is the critically-embraced ‘The Hate U Give’ (2018). But this is not commonality and we hope that there will be more teen films to come that show teenagers being involved in social movements for the betterment of the collective, instead of being self-absorbed like most film heroes and heroines are in teen films.
We see girls of different races and skin tones, body types and personalities in ‘Moxie’. Watching them assemble together and gain confidence from interacting with each other to speak out against the casual sexism they face in school from classmates and staff is simultaneously empowering and entertaining. The montage of Vivian anonymously distributing feminist zines and seeing their influence spread among her peers without getting caught is genuinely thrilling and will bring a sheepish grin to the viewers.
Now the cons. This movie, like many teen coming-of-age films, suffers from the Plain Protagonist Syndrome in which all the side characters (including the ‘Quirky Best Friend’) are more interesting and enjoyable to watch than the protagonist at the centre of the story. The protagonist Vivian also makes it clear in a climactic scene that she is bad at public speaking and that her call to action was sudden and unplanned. This speech helps to explain why Vivian is more of an outsider who sees sexism happen to other girls but never really knows what goes on in these girl’s minds. This leaves one with a frustrating feeling as the movie focuses on a girl who has never faced sexism at an extreme level as her friends do. There is a key scene where the side character of Kiera loses a competition that should have deservingly been in her favour. What happens in the next scene? Instead of seeing Kiera deal with this failure, we instead see the protagonist Vivian sulk about it. She walks away from her friends feeling frustrated and gets drunk, later lashing out at her family. Since she was hardly in the centre of the key plots and scenes of the movie, why was Vivian the protagonist in the first place? This seems to be a question in many critics’ minds who saw the film. We should ask the author Jennifer Mathieu, whose book the film was based on, rather than the director. Perhaps this was loosely based on the life of Mathieu, who wrote it so it makes sense that the main character is an outsider looking in. Maybe this outsider perspective was chosen for the book (and then the movie) so that we the audience could relate to it better as we assumably have not gone through the scary and humiliating situations that the other girls in this movie have. But this leads us to the problem of ‘othering’ the victims of sexism. Surely, we are not that different from these young women.
But just because the side characters (mostly WOC or women of colour) are seen from an outsider’s perspective is not to say that the film does not care about women of colour. ‘Moxie’ does much to give attention and screen time to these women to air their grievances. We get a glimpse (albeit a brief one) of the stiflingly conservative homelife of the Asian character Claudia (played by Lauren Tsai). However, it is Alycia Pascual-Peña who outshines everybody as the hot-blooded feminist leader Lucy, the new transfer student who is maliciously bullied by the class jock. But it is strange that we do not see her home life while we see the home life of the less politically involved Claudia. There is also a character who is wheelchair-bound and yet able to connect with the Moxie movement. However, her physical challenge seems to be her only defining trait. This character, whose name escapes my mind, seems to have the potential in pushing some of the buttons of the story, but she is ultimately wasted. There is also a scene towards the end where a black girl stands up and gives a speech on how her hair is not for other people’s amusement. This move by the screenwriters Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer is commendable although the speech itself is nothing new for those who spend time on ‘activism’ Twitter or follow the content of black commentators on YouTube. Ultimately, this film is not groundbreaking for feminist cinema nor teen cinema.
There is also a common trope in coming-of-age films where the lead character is always a white girl or boy, and they find love by the end. Meanwhile, there is a clear dearth of WOC characters, much fewer characters who get romantic endings. Even if these characters exist, they are underwritten and relegated to supporting roles. ‘Moxie’, despite its fresh take on student activism, unfortunately, falls under this trope. Vivian is white and she falls in love with the bewitched Seth (played impressively by Nico Haraga), an adorable classmate of Vivian and a keen feminist ally. Meanwhile, the other girls in Vivian’s clique (the white as well as WOC characters) do not get romantic angles to their stories. This is not to say that the screenwriters did not even try. There is indeed a scene where the black (and queer!) characters Lucy and Amaya, share a kiss at a moment of peak collective joy. But this move comes out of nowhere and feels very random. Also, this subplot is never mentioned again in the film. So much for WOC/gay representation.
Moving on, it is a little unrealistic when CJ is the only one who cheers for the chauvinist Mitchell during a school election but the entire class cheers for the shy Kiera, making the initial claim of ‘toxic macho space’ unconvincing. There surely can’t be so many cases of sexism in a school where small actions like a group of kids hyping up an exceptional girl over the popular but less competent boy could come about so easily. On the plus side, there are some great bangers featured on the ‘Moxie’ soundtrack including the 90s Riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, whose song ‘Rebel Girl’ features heavily in the film. The film is currently streaming on Netflix.