We're all in this together, until we aren't, then it's every
girl for herself
dir: Amy Poehler
Moxie sounds like something from the olden days, like something you used to put in a car during Prohibition, if you could afford one, and if the Mafia allowed you to drive. It’s used in dialogue by an older (compared to the protagonists) person, and severely mocked by those who hear it. And yet it becomes the title of this film and the zine the main character Vivian (Hadley Robinson) makes to combat the sexism and misogyny she sees at her school.
I don’t know if you can argue that it all comes about in an entirely organic manner, but really, how much does that matter. Upon the first day of her new school year, she’s wondering about what matters to her and what she cares about. Turns out, not much. She looks to others to tell her what should matter to her, because she doesn’t yet know what to care about.
That’s fair enough. She and her BFF Claudia (Lauren Tsai) know about stuff and care about stuff, but they’re wallflowers at their high school, and more the kind of people who just want to get through rather than stand out and become targets for shitheads and bullies.
A new starter at the school, being Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) is targeted by the captain of the football team, who is the appointed god-king of this place, and it’s either because she’s African-American or because she tried to defy the established canon of American Literature, and disliked being interrupted by the jerk Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger) when criticising the fact that The Great Gatsby is still being taught in schools like no other books have ever been written.
Mitchell probably hasn’t read it. Guys like Mitchell don’t need to read. But he hears a person of colour criticising the canon, he has to defend it, like he’d probably reflexively need to defend Confederate flags and vaccine conspiracy theories. He’s just out here, exercising his freedom of speech, asking the questions the others don’t have the courage to ask, is all.
How Mitchell behaves is appalling, and over the course of the flick this mediocre piece of shit keeps getting away with and being enabled by everyone, just because he’s the captain of the football team. It’s not even a remotely successful football team, but the hierarchy established in this ecosystem dictates that the male Captain of Any Football Team = Way Better than Anyone Else.
But the focus isn’t really on Mitchell. He’s not a character that matters (though he commits much evil). It’s the people around Mitchell, the system around Mitchell that enables him and never even tries to gently recommend he not be so much of a piece of shit that matters.
And, at least at first, Vivian doesn’t even see that she’s part of it. Even after watching and hearing Mitchell be awful towards Lucy, everything the school has taught he to say and think comes to the fore: she tells Lucy to just keep her head down, go with the flow, and then maybe Mitchell will move on to presumably threaten and sexually harass someone else.
Lucy, who makes her case to the principal of the fucking school (Marcia Gay Harden), is told there is no case for Mitchell to answer, and reporting it would be a lot of paperwork, but nevertheless, she persists. She tells Vivian there is no reason for her to keep her head down and modify her behaviour.
She is going to keep her head up.
This is somehow shocking to Vivian. At first she was trying to be friendly and helpful to Lucy. She doesn’t see that suggesting Lucy should modify her actions and her behavior essentially amounts to blaming her for Mitchell’s actions. But it’s the keeping her head up part that perplexes her the most.
Vivian’s mum is played by Amy Poehler. What her character is called is irrelevant, because Poehler is also the director of the film. Considering her age (which is identical to mine), I am guessing the 90s stuff is not much of a coincidence.
You see, when Vivian hears Lucy say she’s going to keep her head up, it reminds Vivian of something her mum used to say, which leads to a conversation about 90s feminist punk music like Bikini Kill and Sleater Kinney and such, and about how their radical ideas about women being human and deserving self-determination and agency etc without being harassed or slutshamed and such inspired Vivian’s mum all her life.
But, really, the impression we get is that Vivian’s heard all of this before, but because she saw someone her own age get harassed, and talked down to, and because she didn’t cop it sweet and reminded her of a lyric from a Bikini Kill song, what her school and this world now need is some DIY punk aesthetic and rhetoric from the 1990s and some zines to really change things around here.
It’s kinda adorably naïve, but it also makes me wonder who the real target audience is for this flick. Like all YA stuff you assume it’s aimed at teens, but something like this is also meant to make their parents feel a glow all for themselves if they happen to remember listening to that music and agreeing with those sentiments at the time and even still.
Yeah, so, huh. Those of us who agreed with all that back in the day: we didn’t stop any of the awful shit that’s happened in the last thirty years though, did we? Didn’t stop us from propping up the creaky edifice of patriarchy, didn’t stop us from rewarding toxic masculinity and keeping down the women who spoke out, didn’t really change a thing, did it?
Well, maybe Vivian will succeed where we failed. She puts together a zine using the aesthetics from her mum’s 90s keepsakes, with a sprinkling of contemporary parlance and references to intersectionality, gets it printed at a printing place, and leaves them around the school.
She calls it MoXiE!, of course. I'm not typing that again.
The school somehow becomes obsessed with the zine, and it starts raising the consciousness of the women and non-binary / gender diverse / fluid people in the school. It also engages with some of the guys, who I guess see themselves as allies, but they’re the ones you have to watch out for the most.
It’s just, you know, all so very simple. The creation of Moxie was also in response to a list compiled by the two worst people in the school, being Mitchell, of course, and his sidekick whose name escapes me because his only purpose is to high five Mitchell whenever he says something awful. The ‘list’ lists various degrading or objectifying opinions of the girls in the school, saying which one has the finest rack or legs, or which ones give the best handjobs, that kind of stupid shit. But within this, even though it isn’t explicitly stated to us, there’s some horrible abusive language.
The school don’t care. Principal doesn’t care because… I honestly don’t understand. I understand in the bigger context, because there are too many stories out of the States and in Australia, of high school athletes raping and sexually harassing girls and being protected from the repercussions of their actions because they’re good at a sport or because they play sport for a private school. The victims bear the brunt of the community’s outrage, and the bright shining future of the athlete and the pieces of shit who protect them are lauded for their awfulness.
But here, he’s not even good at football. I’m not saying that would justify his behavior, I’m just saying the headline “Star athlete unfairly accused, accuser’s family home burned down” seems far more likely than “mediocre football player whose team wins nothing gets away with rape again with no repercussions and will work at father’s jet ski shop for rest of life”.
I don’t even know what I’m saying any more. Maybe that’s the point, that schools and communities and principals will protect these shitty people reflexively, because the system requires it, and they want to stay in the good books with the system. So a principal will turn a blind eye for most of a story, and ignore the virtues (and PR opportunities) of a team captain, of the girl’s soccer team, who’s actually a champion and brings in the trophies, because the student leader of a school should be a mediocre white guy with pearly teeth who brutally dominates everyone before him?
It's a bit much. It doesn’t help that he doesn’t have a real personality, but it does help that he’s blindingly bland and handsome. Mitchell, the worst person in this film, is played by Patrick Schwarzenegger, which is a name you might be familiar with, and, yes, he’s a son of the great man. I almost feel bad because he’s so awful, and it gets even worse by the end, but he’s not really a character: he just represents something, something appalling. But what’s worst is not that they exist and they do awful things to people: it’s the people who defend and enable them, the people who look the other way, the ones who exploit our silence and make collaborators of us in a system that benefits them and never us. Schools, parliaments, corporations: Moxie is going to tear them all down.
It's not believable, including the straw that breaks the camel’s back that finally prompts the principal to take action at the end (not for a second would I believe this principal would side with the victim over this perpetrator), but it should be real. I desperately wanted it to be true for these kids. It should be enough for enough people to stand up and say they’re not going to accept things continuing the way they always have for the benefit of the worst and cruellest, and in Moxie it is enough. When enough of the women in and around this school get a chance to hear each other and support each other, and resist the impulses that usually set them against each other and even within themselves internally, great things could happen.
I have read somewhere that some critics of the flick point out that it has something of a white savior complex, but it’s not a complaint that I support. It might be true from their perspective, but I guess I see it a bit differently (which is what I, a tool of white supremacy, would say, of course). Vivian, like a lot of us, is a bit isolated and confused about what matters to her and what should matter to her. Like, a lot of teenagers, and those of us who remember similar confusion, which has persisted beyond our teen years and maybe into our 40s, we still know when something is wrong, even when we’re not sure what to do about it. By putting together Moxie, by making friends with people she wasn’t (and wouldn’t have been) friends with before, from different backgrounds and cultures, she’s helping them articulate their issues in their way: she’s not just taking their words and making it all about her. Her best friend Claudia, who feels alienated because of these new friends, and because of Vivian’s secret activism, has her own reasons for resisting change and resisting speaking out: her ethnicity plays a role in her actions, and the parental pressures she experiences, but she’s enough of a character in her own right that the conflicts feel real rather than contrived. The conflict she has with her best friend are the conflicts every best friend has had since time immemorial whenever time passes and people expand their social circles.
Only the most cynical reviewer arguing with bad faith would argue that Claudia’s, or Lucy’s experiences, or even Vivian’s romantic entanglements with the dreamy Seth (Nico Haraga) are all about making the white middle class girl feel better about herself because of the rainbow multi-ethnic coalition that grows around her because of Moxie. It’s clear that Moxie works because the people within the school that need it the most see it as an opportunity to voice their own pain, their own concerns, and not because Vivian is some magical being who hoovers up the experiences of everyone around her as a substitute for having any meaning on her own.
I think the story was fine, perfectly well acted, and deftly directed by Amy Poehler, who gets to be pretty funny playing the cool 3rd wave feminist mum who isn’t above embarrassing her daughter at the drop of an L7 CD. And I thought Hadley Robinson, who I’ve only ever seen in the recent Little Women remake by Greta Gerwig, does really well with a character that could have been too perfect but certainly wasn’t’. She has a great scene of drunken acting as well, when she sculls a bottle of champagne and attacks her mum and her date (Clark Gregg) for having the temerity to date each other. You know, monstrous shit like that.
Come on, Vivian. Us people in our late 40s early 50s need companionship too.
I really thought the character of Seth was a bit of a red flag / red herring too. He was too perfect, as the guy who she’s been friends with since childhood, and is now immensely fit and woke, and totally supportive of feminist objectives, and always there for her – I was certain it was going to turn out that he was the real monster lurking in the school. Too many jerks learn the language of empathy and activism, and use it to their own ends, in the pursuit of papering over the sociopathic void within, masking truly terrible impulses and behaviours.
But this is not a flick for grinding, gruelling endings. It’s a gentle fantasy about some truly awful aspects of society, but it’s done in a fun and inspiring way, at least I think it is, for its target audience. Moxie has plenty of moxie, and it’s inspired me to start using the term most unironically in future. So it’s a win – win – win!
8 times being a teenage girl in this world seems impossibly hard out of 10
“We've been best friends since we were four. You really think you could lead a revolt and I wouldn't notice?” – probably? - Moxie!