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'Moxie' director Amy Poehler talks lessons learned in Hollywood: 'I put up with a lot less'

Andrea Mandell, USA TODAY
·4 min read

For many teenagers with a bully in high school, the options seem few.

Option A: Suck it up and hope to find your groove after graduation.

Option B: You get your “Moxie” on and start a revolution, as seen in Amy Poehler's young-adult-focused sophomore directorial effort.

"Moxie," streaming now on Netflix, finds Poehler both directing and playing a former ‘90s Riot Grrrl whose shy teenage daughter, Vivian (Hadley Robinson), flies under the radar at a high school where sexual harassment runs rampant and female students are ranked on their looks in an annual list.

Vivian's M.O. is to power through and keep her head down until graduation – until she witnesses the harassment of a new girl, Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña), by the school’s football captain (Patrick Schwarzenegger). Radicalized by Lucy's refusal to cow to his behavior, Vivian anonymously starts a zine – based on her mom’s archives – called “Moxie,” which turns the school’s dusty gender dynamics on its head.

“The ways in which people are encouraged to participate and lend their voice is so different than it was when I was growing up,” says Poehler, 49, who puts intersectional, inclusive feminism on display in “Moxie,” based on the 2015 novel by Jennifer Mathieu. "So much of my last decade of activism is about unlearning the ways in which I learned how to participate."

In her quest for equality, Vivian, too, stumbles as she stretches her wings, demanding too much of her reticent best friend and lashing out when "Moxie" messaging goes awry.

“Television and film can do it in a really cool way and kind of show that things are just not as cut and dried and black and white as they seem to be,” Poehler says. “Sometimes, it’s more helpful to watch or hear or relate to someone who didn't get it right than someone who did.”

Robinson, 27, who attended high school in Switzerland, Vermont and Michigan, says she was “very shy” like Vivian. The Juilliard-trained actress (whose first major role was in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women”) recalls guys ranking girls based on their looks in her school, too.

“Girls were ranked on a scale of 1 to 10. … And when the girls found out, it was devastating for a lot of people and a huge blow to a lot of the girls’ self-confidence,” she says. And as in “Moxie,” there were no repercussions for those who produced the list. “The reasoning (was) ‘boys will be boys.’ ”

'I had a focus group of two': How Amy Poehler used her sons to make an animated show about a teen boy

Poehler cast Schwarzenegger to play her chiseled prom king predator, the picture of a guy whose relentless teasing is seen by the principal as child’s play. “It's very hard to be that kind of villain, because it's very hard to empathize with him,” Robinson says. On the set, Poehler was “encouraging of him really stepping into that character fully even if it (was) uncomfortable.”

But there are also more evolved characters like Seth (Nico Hiraga of "Booksmart"), who show solidarity. “What we try to talk about in 'Moxie' is that, you know, young men are just as confused about how to get it right,” says Poehler, who is mom to sons Archie, 12, and Abel, 10. "Kids today are really sensitive to people or messages that are inauthentic.” As a parent, “you can talk a big game, but you really have to walk the walk.”

"Being around young people, you certainly are reminded of why it's important to stay curious and flexible. ... They can often have this lightness that is very contagious and great to be around. And then there are other days that I really feel like I need somebody who's traveled similar roads, and I want them mentor me. And that is the great part of being middle-aged. You are truly in the juicy middle," says Amy Poehler, surrounded by her "Moxie" cast.
"Being around young people, you certainly are reminded of why it's important to stay curious and flexible. ... They can often have this lightness that is very contagious and great to be around. And then there are other days that I really feel like I need somebody who's traveled similar roads, and I want them mentor me. And that is the great part of being middle-aged. You are truly in the juicy middle," says Amy Poehler, surrounded by her "Moxie" cast.

Poehler, who made her directorial debut with Netflix’s “Wine Country” and will reunite with Tina Fey this month to host the Golden Globes, says she’s found her voice over the years by learning to trust her instincts. “I’ve also learned that to create something doesn’t require chaos. … I put up with a lot less.”

She's also embraced taking a more introspective look at her own rise in Hollywood.

“When you really grind to get where you are ... you really feel like you've been responsible for all your success. And then you have to gently take a real look and be like, what opportunities were given to me that weren’t given to somebody else? What doors were already open for me? And in what ways was I starting at the starting line rather than 10 paces back? … I’m just trying to stay flexible and open-minded as I grow up.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Netflix's 'Moxie': Why Amy Poehler directed a YA film about activism