Netflix’s Moxie is different kind of coming-of-age movie, one that revolves not around boys or popularity but … publishing. As in actual, crinkle-it-in-your-hands print publishing. It’s about a shy 16-year-old girl named Vivian (Hadley Robinson) who unexpectedly sparks a movement when she begins anonymously distributing a zine at her high school.
In Primetimer’s poll of TV and movie critics, Moxie was most often compared to other socially conscious flicks about teenage girls like Tina Fey’s 2004 Mean Girls, Olivia Wilde’s 2019 Booksmart, Greta Gerwig’s 2017 Lady Bird and Bo Burnham’s 2018 Eighth Grade.
Amy Poehler acquired Moxie from popular YA novelist Jennifer Mathieu, a high school teacher in Texas whose works feature introspective young women intersecting with larger social issues. (Mathieu makes a cameo in Moxie as the school’s chemistry teacher.) This is Poehler’s latest directing gig after Wine Country and she also co-stars in it. She plays Vivian’s mom, whose riot grrrl past inspires her daughter to push on in her adventures in rabble-rousing.
One day a new girl named Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) arrives at Rockport High and lights a fire under Vivian. Encouraging her to fight back against the sexist atmosphere in their school, Vivian is inspired to launch Moxie. (The title is ironic; the school’s clueless principal, played by Marcia Gay Harden, thinks it takes moxie to be a cheerleader.) Soon the whole school is buzzing, not least about who’s behind this audacious zine.
Poehler has said her dream is that Moxie itself inspires a movement, and that “we’ll get to talk to the people who have made changes in their local communities and schools, and who have found ways to organize.”
So… how did she do? Here's what the critics have say:
It’s not a Mean Girls update.
“In many ways, Moxie does get right what 00s high school films such as Mean Girls perhaps got wrong,” Hollie Richardson observes in Stylist (UK). Like Mean Girls (in which Poehler also played a cool mom), Moxie “examines difficult issues and the stigmas that surround them, including rape, sexism, racism, misogyny, manipulation and bullying.”
But while Mean Girls used rage and retribution to generate its comic energy — a secret “burn book” full of malicious gossip about girls in the school is circulated — Moxie is more earnest and aspirational. Yes, the zine and its online component are sensational, but its contents don’t divide the student body into warring factions so much as inspire girls at Rockport High to reclaim their identities. “One of the film’s most valuable messages is that the best thing an ally can do is step aside and let marginalized people speak for themselves,” writes Katie Rife in AV Club.
It’s not To All the Boys, either.
Moxie fits nicely into the growing library of YA originals that Netflix has been developing since it acquired To All the Boys in 2017. “Unlike the typical Netflix adaptation of a Young Adult novel, the movie Moxie isn’t so much about relationships and romance (though there’s plenty of both) as it is about high school girls standing up for themselves,” says Noel Murray in the New York Times.
Though much of the story is built on exposing the built-in sexism of high school culture, Moxie stays comfortably within the YA genre, including a budding romance between Vivian and a skateboard geek named Seth (Nico Hiraga). But also interesting is Vivian’s changing relationship to her longtime BFF Claudia (Lauren Tsai) after Lucy shows up. Moxie “gives its protagonist the kind of thorny love triangle I wish more stories about teen girls would tackle: the arrival of a new confidant that unexpectedly challenges best friendships,” writes Inkoo Kang in The Hollywood Reporter.
The actors are great, but …
“Moxie makes for a great platform for some talented young actors,” Eric Eisenberg writes in Cinema Blend, a sentiment echoed by most reviewers. “In her first lead role, Hadley Robinson demonstrates wonderful range playing Vivian, and the evolution of the character through the story feels authentic because of how she plays it.”
Other critics singled out Nico Hiraga as Seth. He’s every cis girl’s dream guy — good looking, sensitive and woke — but “a little dry in the drama department,” one critic noted. Another reviewer thinks Patrick Schwarzenegger, who plays the football team’s quarterback, is headed for bigger things, but that’s an easy prediction to make about Arnold’s son.
Many critics, though, were disappointed that Alycia Pascual-Peña as Lucy didn’t play a larger role in the movie. Indeed, a recurring lament in reviews of Moxie is that the supporting cast is underdeveloped and play stock YA film characters. But with a runtime of under two hours, there’s only so much director Poehler can do. “It’s great that Moxie addresses so many issues, but this is a story that might have been told more effectively in a series,” writes Bill Goodykoontz in the Arizona Republic.
And now you know why Netflix and other streaming channels are taking novels and turning them into limited series rather than movies. A six- or seven-part adaptation would’ve allowed some of the characters in Mathieu’s novel to be more fully developed and relatable than they are here.
Moxie is not recommended if …
… you were expecting something more “realistic.”
Richard Roeper praises Poehler and writers Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer for setting “the socially relevant platform in Moxie against the backdrop of familiar High School Movie scenes, including the obligatory blow-out party; a trying-on-outfits montage; a sweet and awkward romance, and sudden friction between best friends who vowed they’d never let anything get between them. The dialogue is crisp and funny and smart, and feels authentic throughout.”
Authentic, but not realistic, writes Sarah Carson for MSN. “Moxie is sweet, earnest and well-meaning; but lacks real rebellion or bite. It works best when judged as a film about girls forging relationships through raising their voices rather than a call to arms or celebration of activism.” Still, Carson adds, a movie like Moxie “in which the institutionalized injustices faced by teenage girls are acknowledged and railed against” seemed unimaginable even a few years ago.
Moxie drops on Netflix March 3rd.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.