Not Okay (United States, 2022)July 27, 2022
Not Okay can be a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It touches on a wide variety of hot-button issues. A few are addressed with subtlety and others with sledgehammer forcefulness. Some, as one might reasonably expect, are incised with greater precision than others. The end result is scattershot but ultimately effective because the through-line – a story about the awakening of a self-absorbed young woman – is presented in a coherent fashion. Although it might be a stretch to argue that character and story trump messaging, those former elements are present and that makes all the difference.
The film’s protagonist is a socially isolated would-be writer named Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch) whose prospects appear dim at best. Working as a photo editor for the trendy media conglomerate Depravity, she yearns for her words to be published but navel-gazing pieces like “Why Am I so Sad?” aren’t going to get it done. Desperate to gain a gaggle of Instagram followers, she decides to take a trip to Paris with the sole aim of boosting her online presence. The price tag, however, dissuades her, since she barely makes enough to pay her bills. Then inspiration strikes – why not use her photoshopping skills to fake the trip? But when a terrorist attack occurs in the middle of her “vacation” in the City of Lights, Danni faces a quandary: come clean about the faux nature of the trip or double-down on the lie? There wouldn’t be much of a movie if she doesn’t opt for the latter.
In the wake of pretending to have been in close proximity to the bombing, Danni achieves the level of Internet stardom she had hoped for. She’s also accorded more respect at work, being given the opportunity to write about her experience. She visits a support group for survivors where she meets Rowan (Mia Isaac), whose tragic story of living through a school shooting breaks through Danni’s seemingly impervious armor of superficiality. That doesn’t stop her from using Rowan, however, co-opting the #IAmNotOkay slogan from her new friend and claiming it as her own. But the fake nature of Danni’s trip is easily uncovered and it's only a matter of time before someone starts digging…
It's no surprise to viewers of Not Okay that Danni is in for tremendous fall. The movie opens with widespread vituperations being cast at her from all corners of traditional and social media. She has become more than a pariah – she’s Internet Enemy #1. One commenter brands her as “worse than Hitler.” The movie then pauses, rewinds the clock, and shows how all of this came to be.
While Not Okay tells the age-old story of the rise and fall of a popular figure whose hubris fuels her collapse, there’s a lot to unpack insofar as secondary and tertiary elements are concerned. Director Quinn Shephard, who’s young enough to have her finger on the pulse of Danni’s generation, gets the obsessions and associated dark side of social media. The movie functions as a vicious takedown of the superficial culture that has developed around the need to accumulate “likes” and “friends” as if they had any real meaning. Shephard asks (but never answers) the question of whether Danni is an amoral monster or a victim. Her interactions with Rowan force her to re-examine her life and, while the movie is honest enough not to opt for a fairy tale ending, it allows for some growth in Danni’s character.
In Rowan, Shephard is able to address the pain and anxiety suffered by far too many school-age children whose biggest worry about getting on the bus every morning is no longer about getting A’s or B’s. This is one area where the writing feels artificial – as if Shephard has relied on co-opting talking points to fill in some of the blanks of Rowan’s character. But Mia Isaac’s performance is so rich and multifaceted that the character comes to life despite missteps in the dialogue.
We are warned at the outset that the movie contains an “unlikeable female protagonist” and Zoey Deutch crafts a Danni who fits the bill. But the actress is adept enough to show that many of the forces motivating Danni are the same ones that have stalked young women through different eras. Her greatest sins are her opportunism and insensitivity. With a smaller audience, the repercussions would have been transitory and minimal. But with all of social media looking on, the tsunami is devastating. Because there’s nothing the Internet loves more than taking down a once-revered figure.
It might be fair to argue that Shephard overreaches with Not Okay, but there’s something bracing and fresh about throwing caution to the wind the way she does. The movie doesn’t have the bland, cookie-cutter feel of so many of the other productions that comment on the evils of the Internet. And, while many of the ideas offered up in Not Okay aren’t fully developed, they provide viewers with topics for rumination and discussion. This is only Shephard’s second feature (she made her debut, Blame, at age 22) but it argues in favor of a developing talent. And, although Shephard’s future may be bright, the present, as represented by Not Okay, is pretty good too.
Not Okay (United States, 2022)
Cast: Zoey Deutch, Dylan O’Brien, Embeth Davidtz, Mia Isaac
Screenplay: Quinn Shephard
Cinematography: Robby Baumgartner
Music: Pierre-Philippe Cote
U.S. Distributor: Searchlight Films
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