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Hadley Robinson plays Vivian and Nico Hiraga is Seth in Moxie in Amy Poehler's dramedy Moxie.Colleen Hayes/NETFLIX © 2020/Netflix

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  • Moxie
  • Directed by Amy Poehler
  • Written by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, based on book by Jennifer Mathieu
  • Starring Hadley Robinson, Lauren Tsai and Amy Poehler
  • Classification PG; 111 mins

I’ve been dreading talking to my kids about high school. I have some great memories. I also have loads – and I do mean loads – of not-so-fond remembrances. Actually, they are more like events seared into the deep recesses of my brain, which occasionally pop into my head, leaving me speechless at my own spectacular stupidity for several minutes.

Moxie, then, gives me a way to eventually talk to my pre-teen daughter and son about what lies ahead. When the trailer first dropped – beginning with a teen asking her mother, “What do 16-year-olds care about?” – I could relate. I like to think of myself as a radical mom who gives measured advice to her offspring. Sure, I was a little wary of a story that seems to centre on the experiences of naive, white teenager Vivian Carter (Hadley Robinson, Little Women) and her cool-but-clearly-suburban mother Lisa (Amy Poehler), with the harassment of an Afro-Latina student, Lucy Hernandez (Alycia Pascual-Pena), serving as the catalyst. However, I can report back to you that the film is more nuanced than the trailer.

Vivian's cool-but-clearly-suburban mother Lisa is played by director and comedic titan Amy Poehler.Colleen Hayes/NETFLIX © 2020/Netflix

Welcome to Rockport High. Like most of the students here, Vivian and her best friend, Claudia (Lauren Tsai), have known each other since second grade. Both are happy to fly under the radar amid the usual cliques: the jocks, the cheerleaders, the nerds, the oddballs. But then a new student, Lucy, joins Vivian’s English class and starts questioning the established narrative.

When jock Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger – yes, the son of Arnold and Maria Shriver) picks on her, Lucy reports it as harassment to Principal Shelly (Marcia Gay Harden). But Lucy’s complaint is undermined. When Vivian suggests that she keep her head low, Lucy responds, “Thanks for the advice, but I’m going to keep my head up. High.”

Things come to pass, and Vivian draws inspiration from her mother’s riot grrrl past and publishes a zine called Moxie. It becomes an impetus for a feminist revolution at Rockport High. However, revolutions are messy – and Vivian is also trying to figure herself out with the help of a diverse group of friends who represent a rainbow of cultures, genders and abilities. In doing so, old and new friendships are tested, as is her relationship with her mother.

Vivian takes inspiration from her mother's grrrl past and publishes a zine called Moxie.Netflix

As something of a teenage drama aficionado, I was pleasantly surprised by Moxie’s self-awareness. It acknowledges its privilege. When Vivian asks her mother if she made mistakes while embarking on teenage rebellions, Lisa admits her group argued among themselves, weren’t intersectional enough and called their meetings pow-wows. As well, Vivian is an unlikely and flawed hero who chickens out and throws tantrums at times. But her peers hold her accountable. They ask Vivian to do better. She does.

While Moxie’s main focus is on Vivian, it also gives other characters a bit of room to breathe. Vivian’s best friend Claudia, for example, is reluctant to join the Moxie crew because she doesn’t see her place in it. We get to understand why the stakes are higher for Claudia, which goes beyond the usual plotlines of besties who fall out. Vivian has a love interest in the adorably goofy, but sensitive Seth Lacosta (Nico Haraga) – who is waaaay cooler than Peter Kavinsky – and this relationship is also handled with sensitivity and care, keeping in mind Vivian’s feminist awakening.

There are some quibbles. Vivian’s coalition of friends ultimately ends up becoming representational, since we never get their back stories. The turning point for Vivian’s final act gets short shrift, even though it involves a serious allegation. There’s a passing reference to her dad, which seems important, but isn’t really dealt with.

It’s tricky to give such a layered glimpse of high school in a movie that keeps its pace at a decent click. And while Moxie is just a small snapshot of those weird and wonderful years, it gives viewers a decent lesson in how to be an ally, without being preachy about it.

Colleen Hayes/NETFLIX © 2020/Netflix

Moxie is available to stream on Netflix starting March 3

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.