Speaking up begets speaking up.
In ‘Hitch’, our protagonist (Will Smith) gives his new client, Albert (Kevin James), things to remember when he walks his date home. Looking back, it seems (a good thing) now as a primer to consent. Hitch doesn’t just tell Albert to kiss Allegra (Amber Valletta) when he notices her lingering at her door. He’s asked to lean in 90% and allow her to close the rest of the 10% or change her mind. I wonder if it would have ended up with a more nuanced explanation if Amy Poehler, Jennifer Mathieu, Tamara Chestna, or Dylan Meyer consulted for the film.
The Setup: Vivian’s (Hadley Robinson) biggest problem is what to write on her essay for her application to Berkeley. Turns out she has no idea which cause is closest to her heart. Not to mention no clue as to how she identifies (a woman? a person?). When we meet her, she’s about to start the 11th grade in a school that seems inclusive (a student in a wheelchair is not picked on because she needs cheerleaders to step aside so she could access the ramp to enter the school building and not a single ‘mean girl’ in sight), however that changes when a new student, Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña), joins them. She’s the kind of teen who views speaking up in class and debating the teacher as normal. This irks the school’s Big Man on Campus, Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), when she doesn’t respond in kind (I think he was looking for her to be flattered) when he takes an interest in her.
The Inciting Incident: Vivian witnesses Lucy being dismissed by Principal Shelly during the pep rally. Though we only are the ones privy to this being the second time it’s brought up, our protagonist is affected enough to channel that anger and frustration into designing and printing ‘Moxie’. The second time Vivian witnesses Lucy harassed (this was quite difficult for me to watch as I worry that this kind of behaviour still exists even if it’s a significantly toned down version of incidents shown in Niki Caro’s ‘North Country’) by Mitchell, she decides to pass on a PSA (though it isn’t really as it encourages the behaviour to continue). Lucy is understandably bothered that the recommended solution is for her to ignore Mitchell, because someone else would end up copping his behaviour. As the budding ‘Rebel Girl’ makes her way out of the school’s gymnasium, it didn’t help that Darryl (Cooper Mothersbaugh) comments to Mark (Corey Fogelmanis) that she isn’t the type who would speak up after Mark mentions that they might be in trouble for jumping out and surprising her.
The Stakes: Stopping a culture of harassment in Rockport High. There has been critique of the film that it focuses more on the bystanders taking action than the actual individuals being targeted. Similarly to what ‘Before I Fall‘ is focused on, this story is about making it easier for not only for someone experiencing harassment to speak up, also for others to easily speak up for similar behaviour witnessed. What eventually unravels is comparable to countless stories when more and more people speak up causing an avalanche attention resulting in both culture change and perpetrators being brought to justice.
The humour in the film takes a back-seat compared to the issues. I wasn’t really bothered of the lack of laugh-out loud moments, and now wonder if that was intentional because it would pull attention from the message of the film. There are a couple of subtle ones like Claudia (Lauren Tsai) alarmingly noting that she couldn’t say the ‘C-word’ out loud or Frank asking to confirm the actual number of prints Vivian wanted. What I’m confused though is the comparison to ‘Booksmart‘. Sure, they are both set in High School and have at least one common actor (Nico Hiraga). The biggest difference is the engine that drives them: ‘Booksmart’ has Molly thinking she’s missing out, while in ‘Moxie’ Vivian is looking for (with the urging of the essay she needs to write) a community where she can hold her head up.
Initially, I was a bit bothered by the self proclaimed introvert (according to a test both she and Claudia had taken) being passive and asking her mother what people her age care about or later more directly to Claudia. Later, I realised that it’s not just because Vivian has no idea what to care about, but more about the people around her noticing something she doesn’t. There was also the point that those of the same age (or even younger — if they have chosen to sneakily watch the film while their parents are asleep) might pick up that this is the path towards their future as an adult. Adults not only take responsibility for their choices, they also look for ways to leave the world a little bit better for the next generation. Kids shouldn’t receive a penalty for enjoying their childhood as Claudia and Vivian have done the previous summer, it’s actually essential to their development. It’s then up to that child to decide when she would let go of the desire to be carefree in exchange (no matter the percentage) to tackling the complicated world of adulthood.
Yet another difference with ‘Booksmart’ is how the adults are written. Lisa (Amy Poehler) regularly hangs out with her daughter (even in the supermarket) and they have healthy way of sharing their views (the kind of verbal sparring where neither side is pressured to win). Even John (Clark Gregg) who has only a handful of scenes gets some sort of depth to him. The only one who came across as a person easy to hate was Principal Shelly, but that could just be a nod to those who yell out over the interwebs because they are reluctant to lower down their mask. Which is why it was difficult to empathise with Mitchell, because neither teen nor adult have shown capacity for empathy. This is no surprise as there are those in public office or maybe a neighbour who lives a couple of houses down the road who have chosen to project this kind of persona.
Will I ever see the day that ‘catcalls’ are no longer existent? I don’t know. I’m just glad that the future is in good hands. In a way Vivian’s story is a version of what others experienced (thinking that they should just get on with things as it is ‘business as usual’) and it took someone taking a stand for them to open up about their own experiences. What saddens me is seeing comments from the general public (or I guess we could call them ‘anonymous internet users’) putting down those who decide to speak up years after the incidents. Footage from Rachael Denhollander’s August 2016 Indystar Interview (Found in Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s riveting documentary ‘Athlete A’) about a doctor abusing his authority and taking advantage of his patients, shows just how difficult it is for a survivor to find a place (both mentally and physically) that they would still be safe after speaking up.
Then came the realisation that Vivian was likely harassed too. She mentioned to Lucy that Mitchell had been that way since second grade, and if her response was keeping her head down (as she was probably advised by someone else, maybe even Principal Shelly —- or her counterpart in primary school) an assumption could be that the view has been helpful to her at one point. The biggest thing? The reminder that the list came out online. There wasn’t mention of which platform it came out of (likely Instagram as that’s what is mentioned during the film). I almost forgot that tidbit because there was more in-person harassment happening within the story. But it wouldn’t be right for me to not bring it up after I had rewatched Geraldine DeRuiter’s talk during the WDS (World Domination Summit) 2018 conference. One of the things she highlighted was users speaking out got the block button implemented (even if it took years) on Twitter.
I also like that there’s a nice reminder that just because someone is supportive, it doesn’t mean that they become your punching bag. Denny Davies (Kevin Costner) tells Terry Ann Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) this in a scene from Mike Binder’s ‘The Upside of Anger’. Seth plays it better by waiting until Vivian is ready to talk as Denny delivered the message quite aggressively (so much that he frightened Terry). The dynamic that shows one of the healthier approaches is Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and Paul Child (Stanley Tucci) in ‘Julie & Julia’ in that neither side takes it out on their spouse. Instead, they just vent their frustration in their ‘inside voice’ as well as doing it in private. No blaming.
Since this is a Netflix title, there isn’t a way to add this to your video library. Though maybe a poster might be something you can add to your film room? If you are looking for something to watch with your 20-year-old (adolescence after all sometimes goes on until a human hits 25) as this is a nice reminder that the road towards respect for women needs the help and input of men too. The world sometimes forgets that there are guys who are disturbed by the actions by people who give their gender bad press and are keen on finding solutions to prevent instances of this happening in the future (which is partly why the character of Seth exists in various forms but at the same time there are those who hide behind the ‘feminist man’ label as a way to excuse abusive behaviour).