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‘Moxie’: Sweet high school movie follows teen’s conversion from nobody to rebellious zine girl

In addition to directing the winning cast, Amy Poehler plays the “cool mom” who really is cool.

Vivian (Hadley Robinson, right) finds inspiration in her mom Lisa (Amy Poehler) in “Moxie.”
Netflix

When Amy Poehler played the “cool mom” who was actually uncool and irresponsible in “Mean Girls,” she was all of seven years older than Rachel McAdams, who played her daughter. Now here we are 17 years later and Poehler is playing a teenager’s mom who really IS cool in “Moxie,” a smart and sweet and inspirational comedy/drama directed by Poehler and featuring a winning ensemble cast of relative newcomers and reliable veterans.

Premiering Wednesday on Netflix, “Moxie” starts off with a “Booksmart” vibe. It’s the junior year at an Oregon high school for Vivian Carter (Hadley Robinson) and her BFF Claudia (Lauren Tsai), bright and funny but shy girls who have spent their first two years of high school as the equivalent of background extras for the jocks and the skateboarders and the cheerleaders and the drama club and the Instagram obsessives. (Robinson and Tsai click so well together we instantly believe Vivian and Claudia have a lifelong friendship.) Vivian in particular sticks to her comfort zone: sitting in the back of the class, keeping her head down and trying to avoid confrontations with the likes of Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), the handsome and popular and boorish quarterback of the football team, who is basically the poster boy for toxic teen masculinity.

As Vivian and Claudia arrive for the first day of junior year, they gossip about some of the more popular kids, and who might be mentioned on the annual, anonymous online rankings list, which is rife with sexist and superficial labels. Vivian: “It’s so nice not to be on anyone’s radar.” Claudia: “Totally.”

Things are about to change, and it all starts in the English class taught by the amiable Mr. Davies (Ike Barinholtz). A transfer student named Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena in a terrific performance) questions the relevance of the assigned summer reading, “The Great Gatsby” — prompting the aforementioned cocky jock Mitchell to mansplain and condescend to Lucy, who makes it quite clear she’s not going to take any of Mitchell’s s----, not now and not ever.

Vivian is inspired. She asks her mom Lisa (Poehler) about mom’s teen rebel days back in the 1990s, which leads to Vivian finding her mother’s old photo albums and notes and clothes — and hearing Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” and feeling an immediate connection. Stirred to action, Vivian creates a girl power zine called “Moxie” (a reference to the principal applauding the cheerleaders for having “moxie”) and leaves copies in the girl’s bathroom — and boom, a movement is ignited.

Augmented by an online component, “Moxie” shines a spotlight on deep-rooted sexism permeating the school. The football team is terrible but they receive the vast majority of funding, while the powerhouse girls’ soccer team can’t even get new uniforms. Nobody says a word about the hulking and leering jock who wears T-shirts with cutoff sleeves to class and often takes his shirt off, but when a female student wears a tank top, she’s sent home for the day. And then there’s that poisonous rankings list, with labels such as “Best Rack,” “Most Bangable,” “Designated Drunk” and “Future MILF.” Lucy and Vivian become an increasingly disruptive and effective voice for change, much to the consternation of the old-school principal (Marcia Gay Harden) and the juvenile, nauseatingly sexist jerks such as Mitchell.

Adapting the Young Adult novel by Jennifer Mathieu, director Poehler and writers Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer deftly deliver the socially relevant platform in “Moxie” against the backdrop of familiar High School Movie scenes, including the obligatory crazy blow-out party; a trying-on-outfits montage; a sweet and awkward romance, and sudden friction between best friends who vowed they’d never let anything get between them. The dialogue is crisp and funny and smart, and feels authentic throughout.

Longtime friends Claudia (Lauren Tsai, left) and Vivian (Hadley Robinson) prefer to be off the high-school radar.
Netflix

“Moxie” also finds time for a tender romance between Vivian and Nico Hiraga’s Seth, a skateboard geek long known as “Seth the Shrimp” who has sprouted over the summer and has become something of a hunk, and a sincere and respectful hunk at that. When Seth blows a possible goodnight kiss with Vivian by overthinking it and she walks away, he runs after and blurts, “I like you a lot, I do. I got all in my head about it, I started worrying in my head like maybe I shouldn’t come on too strong, you’re like this super powerful feminist, you’re not just a cute girl …” and the poor kid is just beside himself with good intentions and hesitation, and Vivian’s response is … perfect.

“Moxie” hits a couple of minor plot road bumps along the way, and there’s a late, admittedly impactful development that would have carried an even more powerful punch had it not been telegraphed throughout the story. Still, this is a film that pulls off the difficult balancing act of carrying an important and uplifting message while delivering consistent laughs and introducing us to some wonderfully badass teens.

And let’s not forget that truly cool mom.