Since time immemorial, girls have spent their high school years dealing with harassment from their male classmates; girls’ school sports are frequently underfunded compared to their male colleagues; girls’ dress codes are more strenuously enforced than boys’; and required reading assignments are weighted towards white male writers at the expense of more diverse writers. In the 1990s, the riot grrrl punk feminist movement sought to address these inequalities, but it burned out before it could deal with these problems in a substantial way. Moxie, Amy Poehler’s directorial debut, picks up the riot grrrl torch and passes it onto the next generation.
Introverted teenager Vivian (Haley Robinson) watches from the sidelines as gendered problems divide her classmates. When her new classmate Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) speaks up in class — and is shouted down and humiliated for it — Vivian decides to take action in a way that makes sense for her. After finding the riot grrrl zines her mom published when she was in high school, Vivian anonymously publishes and distributes Moxie, a zine that confronts the gendered inequities at her school. The zine resonates with many of her classmates and touches off a feminist revolution that encompasses a club, a campaign for a female athlete to win a college scholarship, and multiple schoolwide protests.
Riot grrrl has been lambasted for its white founders and membership and for its non-intersectional approach to activism, and Poehler and screenwriters Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer directly and indirectly addresses this criticism. In an early scene where Vivian and her mother Lisa (played by Poehler) discuss the riot grrrl movement, Lisa mentions the non-diverse membership of her feminist classmates and cringes as she observes that “we called our meetings ‘pow-wows’.” Lucy, whose actions inspire Vivian to start Moxie, is Afro-Latina, and the students who start attending the Moxie club meetings include a few Black teenagers and a trans girl who recently came out. In some scenes, Poehler deftly looks at how different students’ racial backgrounds inform their activism, as in one scene where Claudia (Lauren Tsai) and her mother argue over her involvement in a protest against the school’s dress codes. In other parts of the movie, these attempts at diversity seem tacked on, as in a scene at the end of the film where Black female students start sharing their grievances with how white students treat them. The dialogue seems inorganic, and the white characters’ acceptance of these problems is out of step with how white women would address these issues in real life. Because Vivian is the point-of-view character for this film, seeing her dawning realization of racial and gender inequality would have made some aspects of the story seem more realistic.
While Poehler’s straightforward visual style lacks the whimsy viewers might want from a left-of-center teen movie, she navigates a TV season’s worth of subplots and characters with charm and grace. Her vast ensemble is able to play even the most cliche moments with a humor and vulnerability that make the film better than you’d expect. Haley Robinson leads the cast with a balance of righteous anger, wry humor, and teenage gawkiness that make Vivian seem real, and the actresses playing her classmates make the most of their limited screen time. As the abrasive football quarterback with a shameful past, Patrick Schwarzenegger sounds the one duff note in the cast; he looks like a grad student and leans too hard on generic jock asshole behavior instead of trying to make his character seem more human.
Like the underground movement that inspired it, Moxie has moments of preachy awkwardness. Poehler’s sense of humor and love of her cast and source material elevate the film into a valentine to a youth movement that’s still prescient in 2021.