High school is high school, no matter the era. There are popular kids. There are those who want to be popular. There are those who are left out. These dynamics are particularly toxic in the high school in “Moxie,” where “rankings” are published on social media every year, rankings like “Best Rack,” “Most Bangable,” etc. Vivian finds it annoying, but also doesn’t have any sense she could push back. Her cluelessness is challenged when a new girl named Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) makes waves, first by challenging the summer reading list, and then by standing up to the menacing cocky football-player bully, Mitchell Wilson (Patrick Schwarzenegger). When Lucy reports Mitchell’s harassment to the principal (a soothing-voiced Marcia Gay Harden), the principal warns Lucy not to say the word “harassed” and to just suck it up and ignore him. Basically “boys will be boys.” Vivian and her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) are not “trouble-makers” like this, but something about Lucy’s fearlessness inspires Vivian. Vivian’s mother (Amy Poehler) is a cool mom (although not like the grotesque “cool mom” Poehler played in “Mean Girls“), and one night Vivian discovers her mother’s punk-rock past. It’s the ‘zines that grab Vivian’s attention. She decides to put out her own and she calls it “Moxie.”
The zine, calling out the boorish behavior of boys and the sexist administration, immediately makes waves. Vivian doesn’t take ownership of Moxie. Anonymity is key. Girls gather together, almost by osmosis. There’s Lucy, fired up by the possibilities of expanding her protest. There’s Kiera (Sydney Park) and Amaya (Anjelika Washington), two talented athletes infuriated that their championship soccer team doesn’t get as much support as the lack-luster boys’ football team. There’s Kaitlynn (Sabrina Haskett), a girl sent home for wearing a tank top. There’s CJ (Josie Totah), a trans girl angry that she’s not allowed to audition for the role of Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. The movement sweeps the school, and causes a rift between Vivian and her rule-following best friend Claudia.
Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer adapted Mathieu’s book for the screen, and the script tries to do too much on occasion, as evidenced by the film’s slightly bloated run-time. The attempt to make the feminism of “Moxie” intersectional is well-meaning (and necessary), but leads to some inadvertent tokenism in the execution. Nineties riot grrrl was criticized for not being inclusive enough, something Poehler’s character admits, and so “Moxie” is a sometimes-awkward attempt to course-correct. There are missteps though. Lucy, so central to the film’s early sequences, takes a backseat, at least in terms of screen time, once the movement is up and running. “Moxie” doesn’t have the satirical bite of, say, “Mean Girls,” nor does it have a particularly punk rock energy, but Poehler does an admirable job keeping things moving. Boys aren’t left out, either. A kid named Seth (Nico Hiraga: you probably remember him from “Booksmart“) is a shy ally of the Moxie movement. The romance that blossoms between Seth and Vivian is very sweet, but it has its nuances, too. At one point, Vivian, hyped-up on feminist outrage, includes him in her generalized critique, even though he hasn’t done anything wrong. This is very insightful! Hiraga is a natural as a young romantic lead.