' ' Cinema Romantico: Moxie

Tuesday, May 18, 2021


It’s a bold move deploying “Rebel Girl”, Bikini Kill’s Riot Grrrl lodestar, as your movie’s creed. After all, that 1993 refreshing blast of punk rock talked openly of feminist revolution while the band’s ideology, immortalized not just in music but in its Riot Grrrl Manifesto, came off “rooted rather than received or rote,” as the famed music critic Robert Christgau wrote, “so they scare people.” “Moxie”, on the other hand, Amy Poehler’s Netflix comedy, based on a novel by Jennifer Mathieu, comes across afraid of frightening the dainty algorithms of its streaming platform, forgoing the rattle-the-cages radicalism that defined Bikini Kill. There is a wonderful sequence in which the camera tracks with 16-year old Vivian (Hadley Robinson) and her B.F.F. Claudia (Lauren Tsai) as they make their skeptical way through a raging house party, past keg stands and beer pong, fending off dumb bros, only to find sanctity with their fellow new wave Riot Grrrls in an otherwise empty room. They have broached the walls! They can take it all down, the patriarchy and the callow teenage comedy too! But the dynamite they appear to have in their ends turns out to be just a few trick candles.  

“Moxie” is seen through the eyes of Vivian, a wallflower who becomes radicalized in the wake of an annual social media ranking kept alive by the school’s preeminent jock, Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), of girls in school, from Best Rack to Most Bangable. Inspired by the nonconformist new girl, Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña), and fueled by the discovery of her mom’s (Poehler) Riot Grrrl memorabilia, Vivian decides to secretly create a feminist zine called Moxie, sending up the antiquated phrase of the do-nothing Principal (Marcia Gay Harden) suggesting Connie Britton in “A Promising Young Woman” as Principal Vernon. These are some of the best scenes in the movie, creativity as empowerment, montages as something to akin mini-music videos, in which the school hallways are no longer places to keep her head down and hide but to live out this brewing sensation of empowerment, her own and everyone else’s.

If “Moxie” is mostly about Vivian, her story is reflected through Lucy and her Claudia. The former reflects the zealot in Vivian then the latter reflects the the desire to follow rules and not rock the boat, causing them to grow apart as the movie progresses and Vivian’s rebellion grows larger. If Claudia at first disappointingly suggests something like a mere Miss Manners, her story broadens into more, a first generation Chinese American under enormous pressure from her mom to live a steady life and succeed. Tsai embodies that pressure with impressive vulnerability, allowing Claudia to grow into herself without becoming merely two-dimensional, always retaining that sense of not wanting to let down family. Lucy, on the other hand, never develops into such a complete character, just there as a kind of weather vane for Vivian’s level of commitment. And rest assured, Vivian does become too much, leading into the movie’s emotional downturn, where Vivian’s disgust with and determination to bring down the patriarchy, damn the torpedoes, suggests a more mainstream version of the teenage girl in “Future Weather” (2012) who becomes overwhelmed by the fear of climate change and so determined to stop it that she becomes unhinged, another effective variation on the age-old cinematic wisdom that young people have to come to grips with the universe expanding and learn to live with it without going off the deep end.

There is something respectable about staking out such middle ground even as staking out such middle ground is ultimately causes “Moxie” to capsize. Toward the end, a sexual abuse subplot is trucked in, one demanding the utmost narrative care though here it insultingly exists as mere catalyst for the conclusion, never truly lingering on the hurt caused or the character who was hurt, and ultimately transforming the abuser, villainous though he may be, into nothing more than a sin-eater, as if his comeuppance is enough to set literally everything else right. Indeed, a movie that begins by figuratively throwing bombs, backs off, like one of those brands that issues a vague statement of support in the wake of something tragic but little else, content that it’s done enough. 

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