A little less than halfway through Netflix’s new movie Moxie, I texted my girlfriend, “This movie is making me feel conflicted. I can’t tell if it’s good or not.” And I couldn’t: The first half of this film oscillates greatly in quality. It takes a while to get going, and even once the main plot really starts to take centerstage, the stakes of the movie are still tremendously unclear. There are moments of brilliance sprinkled throughout the first half of the movie — it certainly wasn’t bad — but I was far from convinced.
Then the second half started, and I was converted.
Moxie, directed by Amy Poehler, is in many ways a totally normal and classic teenage coming-of-age movie. The main character Vivian (played by Hadley Robinson) is a junior, just beginning to feel stressed out by college applications. Those applications basically only matter in the first half and then are never mentioned again, which is probably for the best. That plotline never feels particularly interesting, even though it’s used to tie Vivian to her best friend since childhood, Claudia (Lauren Tsai).
The main story the movie is trying to tell is that of Moxie, a feminist protest magazine anonymously printed by Vivian and then becomes a feminist club in the school. Its impact is muted at times, though. Though the reverberations of Moxie are painted to be significant in the school, by my count there are only ever three editions printed. The audience is kind of just told to believe that it really matters without the movie doing the necessary legwork to convince us why that’s the case.
These are not the only flaws in this movie. For example, a character named Meg (Emily Hopper) is in a wheelchair because she doesn’t have legs, and that’s basically the only thing about her character that matters at all in the story. In fact, I’m not confident that she has a single line in the movie that’s not about being disabled.
So yes, the movie is flawed. It’s also beautiful, empowering, hilarious and heart-wrenching. Poehler excellently plays Lisa, Vivian’s single mother, with her absent father only mentioned twice throughout the film. That just makes the impact stronger when, in the midst of a fight with her mother during the time when Vivian is struggling the most, she suddenly turns and asks Lisa, “Why doesn’t Dad want to spend Christmas with me?” That line hit me like a sucker punch. It was perfectly delivered, the highlight of an overall phenomenal performance by Robinson, and I’m not ashamed to say it brought me to tears instantly. The lack of setup for that plotline only made the force of the scene more powerful.
Most of the acting in this movie is excellent, actually. From Vivian’s compassionate and supportive love interest Seth (Nico Hiraga) to Tsai’s justifiably conflicted role as the old best friend who feels replaced by new student Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña), all of the younger characters do a great job. The extreme and undiluted passion of youth that all of these actors portray is moving. Side characters like Lisa, her new boyfriend John (Clark Gregg) and controversial teacher Mr. Davies (Ike Barinholtz) also all play their parts extremely well. Mr. Davies’ character arc is an especially clever part of the film.
The themes of feminism and rebellion in the movie are also incredibly strong. Vivian is told several times that she’s going too far by authority figures, which is inspiring, but when she ignores the warnings of true allies like Claudia and Seth, it hurts to see. Following a disastrous dinner with her mother, Seth and John, Vivian asks her boyfriend if he’s mad at her. His response, so full of pain and betrayal, so honest and justified, hits home with deadly accuracy. Vivian’s cause is just, but the movie does not shy away from her mistakes, nor does it exonerate her undeservingly.
Is the movie heavy-handed at times with its themes and story? Absolutely. And yet, only 15 minutes after telling my girlfriend how I wasn’t sure whether or not the movie was any good, I texted her again. This time, I told her, “F**k, maybe I do like this movie.” Twenty minutes later, I followed up to let her know that I was in tears.
This is a flawed movie for certain. It’s longer than it needs to be (including an absolutely bizarre and entirely unnecessary dance sequence at the very end), and there are large parts of the first half of the movie so uninteresting that I don’t really remember what happened in them. This is also a wonderful film with some moments of great comedy and plenty of emotion to spare. It’s not perfect, but I liked it a lot.