Grrrrrl Power

Go Watch This Houston Teacher's Book-Turned-Movie on Netflix

We chatted with Jennifer Mathieu about her young-adult novel’s roots and what it’s like seeing Amy Poehler translate it to the screen.

By Rebekah Kibodeaux March 8, 2021 Published in the Spring 2021 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Ending a long, arduous day of humdrum lectures, locker-room bullies, and deafening pep rallies with a cruise through the Sonic drive-thru and a chat with your best friend has never sounded better or more nostalgic than after a read-through of Jennifer Mathieu’s 2017 novel Moxie. The Houston author’s influential book impressively encapsulates the south Texas-high school experience, and concurrently tackles everyday sexism and modern rape culture in genuinely recognizable and relatable ways.

Thanks to Netflix and a partnership with celebrated comedian and storyteller Amy Poehler, viewers have been able to see for themselves the effervescent impact of teenage rebellion and a can-do attitude on the screen of their choice since March 3.

A voracious reader all of her life, Mathieu dove headfirst into the role of English teacher at Bellaire High School and quickly became curious about the literature her students were consuming. Her interest eventually inspired her writing career, with her first young-adult novel hitting bookstores back in 2014, followed by Moxie just a few years later. “My interest in feminism, Riot Grrrl, and zines sparked my idea for Moxie,” she explained. “I sponsor the feminist club at my school, and I still have copies of the zine I started in 1997.” Mathieu’s youthful zine, aptly titled Jennifer, may not be on the shelves next to her published work, but as a lifelong writer and dedicated educator, Mathieu continues to take interest in what media contemporary teenagers absorb on a daily basis. “Writing Moxie was such a joyful experience for me,” she said. “And it’s been even more joyful to hear from young readers that reading this novel gave them a sense of empowerment.”

Moxie follows young Vivian Carter (played by Hadley Robinson), a junior at East Rockport High School, and her journey to self-discovery as she combats the sexist norms of her world, from the school’s dress codes and neglectful instructors to sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Adapted by screenwriter Tamara Chestna and directed by Poehler herself, the movie is rated PG-13 for the same thematic elements featured in Mathieu’s teen-targeted novel. “I have heard stories of authors being displeased with the film adaptations of their novels, but I never worried because I knew from speaking with Amy that she absolutely understood the spirit of the book and what I was trying to say,” Mathieu said. “There was no hesitation at all. It’s been a total dream come true.” 

The spirit of Moxie spoke to Poehler, just as it had spoken to the crowds of empowered fans who came to Mathieu’s support when a narrow-minded and cynical analysis from respected book-review magazine Kirkus was published. The piece called the protest portions of Mathieu’s book “troubling,” insisting that Vivian’s fight was both sexist itself and mishandled. Readers took to the internet using the hashtag #moxiegirlsfightback, drowning out the noise of the dissenting review with praise for the characters and their beyond-their-years backbones.

“I think the dictionary definition of moxie is a good one,” Mathieu said of the term. “Determination. Nerve. Strength of character. Greta Thunberg comes to mind. Young Black Lives Matter activists come to mind. The students in the Bellaire High Feminist Club come to mind. We need young people to push us. It’s one reason I enjoy working with teenagers so much.”

The book delivers a fresh, approachable look at the war zone that is modern-day high school, with a touch of local love that Houstonians are sure to appreciate, like a reference to beloved dive bar Cozy Corner in Westbury. According to Mathieu, some of the best scenes translated from the book to the film involve Vivian on her own, cutting out art and listening to music while composing her zine, just like Mathieu used to do on the floor of her own bedroom in the late ’90 s. “The music, the mood, the entire feeling was so wonderful,” Mathieu said. “It was emotional for me, because they were some of my favorite scenes in the book to write.” 

With the story making its way from the page to the screen, it’s time to stock up on Sharpie markers and glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars, and prepare to revel in the shared nostalgia and inspiring message of Vivian and her moxie girls. “I visited the set for one day and got to watch as they filmed,” Mathieu said. “There is something really cool about watching another artist, or group of artists, create their own work that is inspired by something you’ve made, but they make it their own thing.”

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