The word “moxie” is synonymous to spunk, courage, and strength of character. It is for that reason it became the title of a 2015 chick-lit novel by Jennifer Mathieu. That book was only a moderate hit. But that was enough for Amy Poehler to make it the basis of her sophomore feature, after 2019’s Wine Country. It’s a timely Netflix release, following her recent Golden Globes return stint. Here, Poelher directs and plays cool mom Lisa to plucky heroine Vivian Carter, played by newcomer Hadley Robinson (Little Women, I’m Thinking of Ending Things).
As with the novel, Viv is a timid 16-year-old whose only semblance of social life is with her equally shy best friend, Claudia (Legion’s Lauren Tsai), a Chinese immigrant. But when Viv witnesses the harsh treatment endured by new student Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña), particularly from resident jock, Mitchell Wilson (Patrick Schwarzenegger, Arnold’s son), she becomes aware of the misogynistic and xenophobic double standards pervading her campus. Ignoring the problem (therefore, becoming the problem) is Principal Shelly (Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden), who sends tank top-wearers home but condones the rampant sexism. Now “woke”, Viv follows the footsteps of her mother – once a rebel herself – and anonymously starts a zine to criticize the school’s toxic culture.
Despite a slow start, Viv’s movement soon gains traction. Suddenly, she has new friends, who, while aligned to her cause, remain oblivious to her identity. She also gains male support, particularly from eventual boyfriend, Seth (Booksmart’s Nico Hiraga). Though her newfound popularity is not without cost. It soon causes friction between her and Claudia and, eventually, with Lisa.
Spirit does runs high in this coming-of-age and, somehow, it embodies its title. But in trying to tackle too much, the screenplay by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer tends to go all over the place – hence, the bloated running time. While it supposedly gives leeway to explore other pressing issues like white privilege, they are never fully resolved. This is also where characterization turns knotty. There are moments when Viv’s antics go from feminist-in-training to pocket white-savior vigilante. And when her mission goes awry at some point, she turns to underage drinking and inexplicably lashes out – particularly at the males close to her like Seth and her mom’s suitor John (Clark Gregg). Yes, heroes have flaws. More so, when she’s only 16. But it’s hard to root for a protagonist when the fine line between gutsy and obnoxious is crossed – especially in this genre.
Still, there’s emotional reward to spare when everything finally takes form. When an anonymous respondent provides that jaw-dropping climactic twist, the story starts tying loose ends. It makes the denouement satisfying, even if the build-up leaves a weird aftertaste.
Stream Moxie on Netflix.