Print media is not dead! At least not at Rockport High, home of a perennially losing football team and focus of the new Netflix original Moxie, where social controversies are addressed in dialogue exchanges roughly the size of a tweet.
Things look discouraging for anyone who dares color outside the lines of social norms until an ancient weapon from days of yore — a hastily collaged and copied 1990s-style 'zine bursting with vitriol and invective — mixes things up. After just the first issue, the eerily old fashioned school mired in patriarchal conventions starts changing.
Note: 'zine is pronounced "zeen," and 16-year-old Vivian (the quite good Hadley Robinson) discovers her mother's old stash of them in a suitcase full of Bikini Kill tapes and other riot grrrl memorabilia. Mom (Amy Poehler, also the film's director) was a bit of a rebel in her day, which might by why Vivian is something of a timid, go-with-the-flow type as she enters her junior year.
But her eyes are opening to the sexist and racist norms around her, thanks in part to new student Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña), who inspires her not to keep her head down and ignore the jerks, but hold her head up and fight back! Hence, firing off anonymous feminist tracts at a copy shop in the middle of the night.
Vivian unwittingly starts a revolution in which girls (and some guys) reject the jockocracy of the school and their annual ranking of the student body sent via email ("best rack," "most bangable," etc.) that the principal (Marcia Gay Harden) ignores as mere "sticks and stones." What's weird is that this behavior goes unpunished, while girls are sent home if they dare wear a tank top to class. Also a bit far-fetched: the captain of the football team (Patrick Schwarzenegger) is treated like a king even though he always loses. Similarly, it doesn't make sense that our group of misfit heroes hate the school, but still show up to all the football games. Why don't they … go literally anywhere else?
Anyway, the movie works best when it is about people. Vivian and her BFF Claudia (Lauren Tsai) struggle a bit as Vivian gets more radicalized. It's not that Claudia doesn't care, she just isn't as comfortable breaking rules. Then there's Vivian's budding romance with Seth (Nico Hiraga), who is an absolute dreamboat, but also sensitive to her needs; he's comfortable in his masculinity, but 100 percent aware of gender disparity. Frankly, you keep waiting for some other shoe to drop with this character, but it never does. This is certainly sweet (and will appeal to those who watch television shows and use terms like "shipping" and "head canon"), but it's a little dry in the drama department.
Though Moxie is a film about teenagers, it is probably not best watched by them. My guess is that they'll do nothing but roll their eyes. The movie has a PG-13 rating, and that pre- and early teen demo feels about right. There's an aspirational quality to all this: if viewers just hang on a few more years their struggles are going to get so much more adult and won't that be terrific? There is a phony, learn-a-lesson vibe (we used to call them "afterschool specials") to Moxie that you won't find in far superior recent work like Eighth Grade, Booksmart, or Love, Simon. But that doesn't mean it is wholly without merit (some of the jokes are good!) or its heart isn't in the right place.
Things definitely go off the rails, however, with a serious plot development involving sexual assault less than 20 minutes before the end of this nearly two-hour movie. The way this character drops in almost like a prop seems almost disrespectful to actual victims. I can understand the need to "raise the stakes," but for the most part Moxie maintains a playful nature, even in its defiance, that makes the ending feel out of whack.
That said, young people do need to be spoon-fed sometimes, and the minefield of blunt dialogue crammed alongside the zings might land well with middle school kids. There's a great moment where an actual preteen punk band, The Linda Lindas, gets up on stage to do their thing. Immediately after watching Moxie I ran through each of their YouTube clips. It was, I must confess, far more enriching that Poehler's film, but like Vivian's stapled missives leading her school to enlightenment, I have to thank the movie for leading me.
TV Guide rating: 2.5/5
Moxie premieres Wednesday, March 3 on Netflix.