Posts Tagged ‘Marcia Gay Harden’

Another day, another Netflix movie which I guess is really aimed at a YA audience, a bit like A Week Away (I suppose). Today we are discussing Moxie, based on a novel by Jennifer Mathieu and directed by Amy Poehler. Normally I’d be a bit wary of approaching this kind of film, but revisiting Parks and Rec (starring, produced, and occasionally written and directed by Poehler) has been one of the things that’s kept me sane during the current lockdown, so I figured it was worth a look.

It starts off looking like a fairly routine high-school comedy-drama. Main character Vivian (Hadley Robinson) and her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) are just starting eleventh grade; we see are the usual high-school tribes and characters, including a comedically jaded form room teacher and a less than entirely impressive principal (Marcia Gay Harden). There is also new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena), who immediately makes an impression by questioning the choice of The Great Gatsby as an English lit text, as it is predominantly concerned with the lives and issues of wealthy white men.

This puts Lucy on the wrong side of wealthy white American football team captain Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), who sets out to annoy (in the words of his defenders) or persecute (in the words of everyone else) his victim. This only makes Vivian more aware of the entrenched unfairness of the high school system, especially when the jocks post their list of all the girls, ranked according to various demeaning criteria.

Vivian finds herself compelled to do something about this, but what? It turns out her mum (Poehler) used to be a bit of a rebel herself, and a fan of the early-90s radical feminist riot grrl movement. Vivian is inspired to anonymously publish a zine she calls Moxie, urging the young women of the high school not to accept the status quo, but to stand up and make their voices heard, finally…

So, once again it’s fair to say I am probably not in the primary target demographic for this movie – unless this notion itself is just another example of putting people into categories rather than judging them as individuals. It may be slightly counterintuitive to say so, but this is a rare example of a mainstream movie which doesn’t, on some level, have a feminist subtext. However, this is only because Moxie has an explicitly feminist text, albeit an inclusive one that suggests men can be feminists too (hey, you know what, I’m absolutely not even going there).

Now my a priori response to something like this would be to echo the old Sam Goldwyn (or possibly Humphrey Bogart, or Ernest Hemingway) line about how messages are for Western Union and this sort of thing is best done with a light touch. But here again I am forced to doubt myself and wonder if doing so isn’t itself being complicit in the misogynistic culture the film is rightly so critical of.

I suppose this in itself is a sign of the film’s success in raising awareness of the issues involved and making the viewer (i.e. me) think about what it’s saying. I was always aware I was having issues raised for my attention, and being gently (or not so gently, most of the time) guided towards a particular set of conclusions, but the film never feels especially shouty or strident: angry, yes, but justifiably so.

How does it manage this? Mainly by never losing track of the traditional storytelling virtues. It’s not just about issues and injustices: the characters are carefully drawn and played by the (fairly) young cast with conviction. None of them are established names, as far as I’m aware – with the exception of young Schwarzenegger, and this is a different sort of thing entirely. (Let’s be scrupulously fair here and judge Patrick Schwarzenegger on the merits of his own performance, which does everything the film requires, rather than his family connections or anything arising from them.) Good work, too, from the older cast members: Poehler gives a very nicely-judged turn, and she is supported well by Ike Barinholtz, Harden, and Clark Gregg (eagle-eyed viewers may spot a very tiny cameo by Helen Slayton-Hughes, whom Parks and Rec fans will recognise as long-suffered City Hall clerk Ethel Beavers).

Still, this is a more serious piece of work in every respect than the kind of thing Poehler is best-known for. It would be deadly for this to come across as too much of a single-issue movie, though, and Poehler dodges the pitfall by ensuring it is nuanced and character-driven. Loud and angry protesting doesn’t come easily to everyone: one of Vivian’s closest friends has a different cultural background and as a result has a slightly different set of issues to deal with. There’s also the fact that being a perpetual state of anger is exhausting and risks alienating otherwise-sympathetic people around you.  The film recognises that, no matter how glaring and egregious an injustice may be, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the solution to it is simple, straightforward, or will come without sacrifices.

The only times the film falls down are when it loses track of this, and becomes more simplistic, even verging on the melodramatic: the disinterest of the school principal is essential to the framing of the story – this is young rebels versus the establishment, after all – but it just doesn’t seem credible, post-Weinstein, for a female character in a position like this to be quite so indifferent to some of the abuse going on. There’s also a third-act plotline about a sexual assault which feels just a tiny bit glib and contrived. We could also talk about the problematic way in which white men are inevitably demonised, to some extent at least, in this kind of narrative, but this is a big and complex topic.

Given that Netflix have, as noted, also recently funded a faith-based musical romance of almost ferocious innocuity, one has to wonder the extent to which its commitment to feminism agitprop is equally calculated. The two films couldn’t be more different: but this is by far the superior of the two. It’s not perfect, but then axe-grinding films like this one almost never are. Nevertheless it manages to be an engaging piece of entertainment as well as an openly angry and political film, and this is a considerable achievement.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 4th March 2004:

It’s over ten years since Clint Eastwood’s long service and considerable skills both as an actor and director were justly rewarded by the Oscars awarded to Unforgiven. Clint has, of course, kept working as solidly as ever since then, but the honest truth is that (with the odd exception) the actual movies haven’t really been anything special.

However, this run of mediocre films has been broken in impressive style with Mystic River, a crime drama based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Set in Boston, it’s the story of trio of men, once childhood friends, who are brought together by violence and tragedy. Jimmy (Sean Penn) is a semi-reformed criminal and tough guy, a devoted family man. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective, struggling after his wife has left him. And Dave (Tim Robbins) is a man left with permanent psychological scars after being kidnapped and abused as a child. When Jimmy’s teenaged daughter is murdered, Sean finds he and his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) have been assigned to the case, while Dave’s wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) finds herself having terrible suspicions about just what her husband was doing on the night of the killing…

Yes, well, not a lot of laughs in this one (and a total absence of performing orang-utans too). But don’t let that put you off, as this is an utterly engrossing and thought-provoking film built with scarcely a dud performance anywhere in it. The plot is complex, with a lot of back-story, most of which emerges through the minutae of the police investigation – but it’s never confusing or contrived. The other main strand of the film concerns Penn coming to terms with the death of his daughter and the growing suspicions surrounding Robbins’ character. It’s more emotionally involving, but equally absorbing, and the two complement each other perfectly.

I’m always slightly wary of films which set out to make serious points and send messages to the audience, but Mystic River manages to do this subtly and calmly. It’s interesting that Clint Eastwood, an actor for many years synonymous with a certain kind of cinematic violence (and whose primary big-screen persona was basically that of Angel of Death) has chosen to make a film suffused with a tremendous dread of and hatred for violence of all kinds. Violence causes violence, the story suggests, resulting in people trapped in a cycle of anger and revenge out of which good can never come. It’s a grim moral, and this is an intense and often brooding film, but it’s also a compulsively watchable one.

Clint’s direction is appropriately unflashy for the most part, and he does sterling double-duty as composer of a low-key but very effective soundtrack. But he must surely take some of the credit for a welter of superb performances from virtually the entire principle cast. Robbins exudes a strange shambling menace as the emotionally damaged Dave, Marcia Gay Harden is outstanding as his wife (and if you ask me deserved to win the Oscar eventually picked up by Renee Zellweger), and Penn is never less than utterly convincing as Jimmy, a man virtually unhinged by grief and rage. Some of these performances are perhaps a little obvious and mannered, but no less praiseworthy for that.

Mystic River perhaps outstays its welcome a bit, and the slightly odd, ambiguous ending will not be to everyone’s taste. But it is a superb drama, tightly written and brilliantly performed, and thoroughly deserving of your attention. I think it bears comparison with the best of Clint Eastwood’s past work, and is also a major piece of evidence for those who would claim that his achievements as a director far surpass those of his acting career. Highly recommended.

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