One of the hurdles of any film that takes place in High School is that you have to decide the degree to which you are going to oversimplify everything, and then you have to stick to that level of reality processing.
Moxie takes High School feminism and rather brilliantly packages it within a secret identity/propaganda movement spurred on by the publication of a series of mysterious “comic” manifestos, but it isn’t always sure where it wants to land on the metaphoric spectrum, and it keeps the film from reaching its full potential.
On the other hand, like the novel it’s based on, there’s so much genre-bending/reinvention at play in the homage to ’90s punk rock feminism that it isn’t hard to forgive the clash of caricatures and angst-laden philosophers. Our hero isn’t even the victim du jour of the patriarchy and/or the establishment, and, to be completely honest, no one even does anything except rage, and organize to collectively rage. That may not sound genre-bending, but it’s screenplay-destroying, and “subtle instigation,” has no plot progression of its own.
Vivian (Hadley Robinson) not only isn’t the current target of Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), the football star who does whatever he wants and has everyone in the school making excuses for him, she’s the girl who approaches his victim to add her voice to the chorus and advise that Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) just keep her head down. Lucy, a jarringly-rich character tilting with Mitchell as he twirls his mustache, is turned away by the Principal (Marcia Gay Harden), who would have to fill out a lot of paperwork if any harassment was actually going on, and therefore it must not be.
Lucy becomes a partial catalyst for a transformation in Vivian, not least simply because Lucy won’t sit down and “take it,” and Vivian isn’t sure how to react to the suggestion that this is among the possible responses to the status quo. A further contribution comes by way of the discovery of her mother’s “feminist warrior” past, and some of the ‘Zines that were a fantastically popular part of the riot grrrl movement. Feeling herself now woke from some social justice slumber, Vivian decides to create her own ‘Zine, which she calls “Moxie” and uses to anonymously call out the toxic males and administration’s complacency.
An immediate hit, Moxie begins to take over the school as Lucy and a variety of others rally together around their own mistreatment. Vivian slowly becomes bolder, in a variety of ways, which distances her from her oldest friend, who has other levels of cultural mores to cope with, and before long Vivian becomes somewhat adrift within the wave she created. In one of the film’s best moves, the second act revolves as much around spiraling anger as efforts toward justice. It’s more complex than it seems, as is Vivian, and it becomes its own statement on the film’s self-reflection.
Like the bands that became inextricably intertwined with the original movement (Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy/Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile, etc.), the rage set loose without enough direction and definition (by design) eventually proves too easy to label and subvert. Vivian takes shots at ally and romantic interest Seth (Nico Hiraga) when “unfocused” proves actually to lack focus, Mitchell capitalizes on “unidentified purpose” perhaps being, in fact, purposeless, and establishment generally reflects on the idea that rage is largely frowned upon.
Unfortunately, as Moxie attempts to add everything to its inclusivity, several characters it attempts to champion are given fairly short shrift. “Sporty” girls are left more or less as developed as that description, and a girl who is forced to change out of a tank top for… big reasons, is similarly mostly a placeholder for the unwritten rule she’s breaking.
However, despite the movie wandering from “syrupy romp” to “angsty anti-misogyny” and calculatedly developing a nuanced everygirl who battles black hats, it never completely abandons a winning heart and emotional honesty. Perhaps best, it delivers a kind of movement epiphany, that is more needed by the target audience than most realize… that not everyone can start the ‘Zine, or be in the band, or spend all day raging… and that’s ok.