The Heroine’s Journey in “Moxie”

“Hey girlfriend
I got a proposition goes something like this:
Dare ya to do what you want
Dare ya to be who you will
Dare ya to cry right out loud.”
 — Bikini Kill, “Hey Girlfriend”

Those “dares” sound so simple, but they’re not, particularly in high school. High school is difficult for girls, but it’s difficult for boys, too (at least girls aren’t told “girls don’t cry” from the moment they’re born.) Girls, though, have their own specific challenges navigating a conformist world, and that’s the world portrayed in “Moxie”. With a talented young cast, “Moxie” takes its inspiration from the riot grrrl era of the ’90s, from Bikini Kill (the punk rock feminist band most associated with riot grrrl), and, most of all, from the riot grrrl ‘zines: self-created, self-designed, photo-copied, these ‘zines spread across the country. In “Moxie,” a current-day teenage girl named Vivian ignites a raging feminist movement in her high school, after discovering a treasure trove of riot grrrl memorabilia in her mother’s trunk. Directed by Amy Poehler “Moxie” is both an awkward act of nostalgia for ’90s activism and an attempt to push the riot grrrl legacy into the future.

High school is high school, no matter the era. There are popular kids. There are those who want to be popular. There are those who are left out. These dynamics are particularly toxic in the high school in “Moxie,” where “rankings” are published on social media every year, rankings like “Best Rack,” “Most Bangable,” etc. Vivian finds it annoying, but also doesn’t have any sense she could push back. Her cluelessness is challenged when a new girl named Lucy makes waves, first by challenging the summer reading list, and then by standing up to the menacing cocky football-player bully, Mitchell Wilson. When Lucy reports Mitchell’s harassment to the principal, the principal warns Lucy not to say the word “harassed” and to just suck it up and ignore him. Basically “boys will be boys.” Vivian and her best friend Claudia are not “trouble-makers” like this, but something about Lucy’s fearlessness inspires Vivian. Vivian’s mother (Amy Poehler) is a cool mom, and one night Vivian discovers her mother’s punk-rock past. It’s the ‘zines that grab Vivian’s attention. She decides to put out her own and she calls it “Moxie.”

The zine, calling out the boorish behavior of boys and the sexist administration, immediately makes waves. Vivian doesn’t take ownership of Moxie. Anonymity is key. Girls gather together, almost by osmosis. There’s Lucy, fired up by the possibilities of expanding her protest. There’s Kiera and Amaya, two talented athletes infuriated that their championship soccer team doesn’t get as much support as the lack-luster boys’ football team. There’s Kaitlynn, a girl sent home for wearing a tank top. There’s CJ, a trans girl angry that she’s not allowed to audition for the role of Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. The movement sweeps the school, and causes a rift between Vivian and her rule-following best friend Claudia.

One of the most important lines in “Moxie” comes from uptight Claudia. Vivian is frustrated by Claudia’s lack of involvement in the protests, and abandons her to hang out with her new group of like-minded friends. Eventually, Claudia says to Vivian, “I do care. You just need to let me do it my way, okay?” “Moxie” allows for this point to be made, and strongly, across a diverse group of participants. Any group that demands monolithic conformity—or only includes a certain kind of person with a certain kind of outlook/background/attitude—does not deserve to call itself liberating. “Moxie” gets that.