In adapting the novel “Moxie” into a film, Amy Poehler takes a stab at a generation-defining teen comedy like “Mean Girls,” the one her BFF Tina Fey wrote.
It’s an of-its moment movie, hip and flip and “Woke” with a capital “W.” “Moxie” is less comic and more ambitious than “Mean Girls,” which leads it into darker places and a little length-padding mission creep.
But its still an uplifting celebration of Gen Z female empowerment, a nice little pat on the back for Poehler’s own Generation X and big step up from her directing debut, “Wine Country.”
Hadley Robinson plays Vivian, who starts her junior year at Oregon’s Rockport High School with purpose — get admitted into Cal — and a best friend, her fellow “INTJ” (introvert), Claudia (Lauren Tsai).
They show up at school, eagerly awaiting and half-dreading the publication of “The List.” That’s a rating system cooked up by unknown jocks and bros that labels classmates “Designated Drunk,” “Best Ass,” “Most Bangable” and the like.
But by the time this list is texted, en masse, to the entire student body, Vivian’s had her eyes opened. The bluff bullying of entitled star jock Mitchell Wilson (Patrick Schwarzenegger, perfectly loathsome) has crossed into “dangerous” harassment which new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena, terrific) isn’t having.
Reporting this to their Baby Boomer principal (Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden) gets a boys-will-be-boys response, and “that word (harassment) — it means I have to do…a whole lot of stuff.” Principal Shelly is all about students with “moxie,” who let stuff like this roll off their backs.
Like that works with bullies — ever.
Lucy is black and already woke. Vivian wakes up herself, takes the Riot Grrrl recollections of her still-tattooed divorced mom (Poehler) to heart, and starts a secret “Zine.” She draws, clips out photos Old School, literally cutting-and-pasting the artwork together — as if any kid today wouldn’t do that all on a smart phone — gets it photocopied and spreads it around the school.
“Moxie” catches on, and together with some outspoken soccer girls, a “dress code” victim and a trans girl looking for acknowledgement, a movement is made and a “revolution” at this toxic school begins.
The English teacher (Ike Barinholtz) quickly learns that he can’t sit this one out.
“If you’re doing nothing,” he’s lectured, “then you’re part of the problem.”
And the only person to figure out that Vivian is behind all this is “not a shrimp anymore” boy-ally, Seth (Nico Hiraga of “Booksmart”). She’s giving skateboarder Seth the eye, and he’s giving it back.
“Secret identities are objectively rad.”
“Moxie” charts a revolution from its birth to the points where “it goes too far,” “blowback” and beyond and delivers positive messaging pretty much all along the way.
It’s a high school comedy that hits all the waypoints of such movies — “Big Party,” “First Boyfriend,” pep rallies and conflict with parents. But there are more uplifting moments than funny ones, and that’s by design. And the film’s turn toward the dark side may be defensible, but stops it cold.
“By design” also gets entirely too close to “on-the-nose” for its own good. The students of color are the first to see the problem and embrace the solution. The schism that opens between Vivian and pal Claudia has “Tiger Mom” stereotyping, and the mother-daughter conflict that Vivian and mother Lisa fall into feels contrived.
The entire affair seems pre-digested and somewhat “sanitized for your protection.”
Robinson (“Little Women”) pleasantly embodies that “nice girl next door” spectrum that Vivian falls on, a perfectly acceptable tour guide for One Teen’s Journey to Feminism. But few of the performances really pop, and that goes back to the screenplay created from Jennifer Mathieu’s novel. You wish it was wittier.
It’s still an intensely likable and watchable dramedy, even if it never quite reaches that “generation defining comedy” thing.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, strong language and sexual material, and some teen drinking
Cast: Hadley Robinson, Lauren Tsai, Alycia Pascual-Pena, Amy Poehler, Nico Hiraga, Ike Barinholtz, and Clark Gregg.
Credits: Directed by Amy Poehler, script by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, based on the novel by Jennifer Mathieu. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:51