★★ / ★★★★
There is a wonderful story waiting to be told and explored in “Moxie,” based on the novel of the same name by Jennifer Mathieu, but it is ultimately bogged down by a most generic storytelling parabola which makes the work vanilla and safe rather than a riotous, rebellious step forward. Its goal is to empower girls and women through feminism by means of underscoring some of the more insidious but normalized rules, traditions, and events in a typical suburban high school.
While most of us can agree with its two-fold message—that a. in this day and age females (especially females of color) remain on an unequal footing when compared to men (i.e.: the way they are expected to act or behave in public spaces, at home, or in the bedroom; when it comes to jobs, level of education, student loans taken out, and wages; down to what is considered to be “acceptable” clothing at school or workplace) and so b. we must adopt active changes (in our thinking, in the way we phrase a point, in action) in order to fill in the gaps—it cannot be denied that the film loses steam about halfway through. A movie like this must be focused, angry, and propelled by fresh ideas all the way to the finish line.
It is astounding to me that screenwriters Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer deem it necessary to surround our protagonist, a shy but otherwise average and likable high school student Vivian Carter (Hadley Robinson), with superficial drama when what she hopes to accomplish—to upend the sexist and toxic patriarchy in her school by starting an underground zine—is not only compelling, it requires time and layered subplots in order to reach its maximum potential.
Instead, we are bombarded with busy-ness: trouble with her best friend (Lauren Tsai) when Vivian expands her social circle, trouble with a boy she likes (Nico Hiraga) when drama at school bleeds into drama at home, trouble with Mom (Amy Poehler—who directs) when she brings a nice man (Clark Gregg) over for dinner. These are decorations, unnecessary padding.
Allow me to defog: This is a story about a girl who feels so bland, who feels she has attained nothing of importance by her sixteenth year, that when faced with an essay question for college applications, she has no idea what to write. Her fears—that she is inadequate, boring, without substance—pushed her to do something inspirational and aspirational. (That in itself tells us what type of person she is—why she is a protagonist worth following.) But that’s not all. There is a line dialogue toward the end of the film—easily missed but I choose not to reveal—that drives home her crushing feelings of not being regarded as critical or important.
And so I ask the writers: When our heroine has all these inner turmoil, why make her journey so conventional and predictable? I think the answer lies in packaging the picture in a way that is commercial or mainstream. It does not possess the confidence necessary to tell the story straight—to tell it as honest or as unique as it can be—because doing so might risk digestibility. This is most ironic because if you’re going to make a film about feminism—and a feminist film, too—fear of alienation should not be in the equation. Otherwise, it comes across as false. As is readily apparent here. The film is feminist on the outside but without edge on in the inside.
It is a shame because I liked a few of the performances. At times Robinson reminded me of Kaitlyn Dever’s energy; there is a sadness to those eyes that when the comedic plot pivots to the more dramatic beats, we remain with her because there is a story constantly being told through those windows. This is a necessary trait because Robinson is the anchor. I also enjoyed watching Hiraga as the romantic interest. He may not look like a typical Romeo, but he brings forth major nice guy ska energy that is so high school, so real, so convincing. You can’t help but smile every time he’s on screen. I wished the writers remained true to the potential of what they had in the first place; they managed to turn the treasure in their hands into coal.