Director: Amy Poehler
Writers: Jennifer Mathieu (novel), Tamara Chestna, Dylan Meyer
Cast: Hadley Robinson, Alycia Pascual-Pena, Lauren Tsai, Nico Hiraga, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Amy Poehler
Streaming on: Netflix
It feels somewhat fitting, if not ironic, that Amy Poehler, who played Rachel McAdams’ mom in Mean Girls, later went on to direct a film on harassment. She has dabbled in edgy and goofy comedy from the outset of her career, from co-anchoring Saturday Night Live to taking on the daffy lead in Parks and Recreation, a fine sitcom that ranks high on my list. Her involvement in these arenas alone marked a gradual shift from an industry dominated by men. In her almost decade-old New Yorker piece, Take Your Licks, she looked back at her teenage years, touching briefly on female abjection and a world that growled at the absence of a male alpha. You can see glimpses of her past trickle down to this very moment in her life, in her teen dramedy Moxie.
The film is set at a school where feminism is met with a flux of panic and relegated to the f-word. When a student points out that The Great Gatsby is a white man’s sob story, a butthurt hunky jock argues back. When the same student and her friends protest against this kind of treatment, the school administrator threatens to expel them. Like practically every school, this one too is an academic hellscape masquerading as an open-minded institution. Moxie is also meant to be sparkly, borrowing from the daring-but-cathartic genre of irreverent teen feminism. After getting inspired by her mom’s (Amy Poehler) past, Vivian (Hadley Robinson) decides to anonymously circulate the feminist zine ‘Moxie’, calling out bullying and harassment. The film essentially transposes the brand of social-rebellion-female-rock to a high school.
Poehler shows how this school is a byproduct of sexist and racist structures fairly well. Her direction is open and empathetic, absorbing the idea that coming-of-age has its own set of struggles. But amongst all this, she loses the thread of humour. The film’s attempt to be scrappy and zany do not flatter its disparate desire to be serious about the issues it gets into. This combination of drama and comedy has worked before — take Eighth Grade, The Edge of Seventeen, Booksmart or Easy A. The problem is that this is a cookie-cutter film. It has heart but it wants to appeal to all sensibilities. Instead of being a tad more specific, it chooses to cram in an overwhelming amount of social causes within a meagre 110 minutes. The problem lies in its focus, and not its gaze.
Moxie does manage to compensate for its humourless theatrics by repeatedly punching you in the stomach about matters of importance. This film may reopen some past wounds depending on who watches it — none of what you see is unfamiliar, neither is it implausible. It teeters between the sentiments of furiousness and emancipation — showing that one’s call for the latter first requires everyone to be the former. It does not groom the issues to make it any less messier or palatable — it pierces your senses and in a way, makes it cathartic to see all the resonating ideas about bullying and harassment on screen. The film may only appeal to those that faced similar struggles in their childhood. But if you are looking for a symphony of humour and deeper meaning, the film will disappoint.