Although some of Not Okay ’s provocative ideas don’t land, its witty script and Zoey Deutch’s piquant performance are engaging enough to make this a chaotic and fun ride.
Over the decades, plenty of films have mocked or ridiculed their own generation. However, as the years went by, more kept appearing. These films were ridiculing this modern generation addicted to the various social media platforms through different mediums and genres. Most of these features had exciting ideas, but they ended up being quite insufferable because the director and writer concocting them made the characters involved so unbearable and their narrative so ridiculous that the audience couldn’t get engaged. A recent example of a movie that managed to surpass these issues, to a certain extent, was Halina Rejin’s Bodies Bodies Bodies. This film blended horror slasher trappings with dark comedy to satirize the privileged youth. It was a rare combination that worked out well in many aspects, despite its setbacks in over-using millennial quips and jokes. Another feature can be added to that small list, as Quinn Shephard’s Not Okay managed to surprise me plenty.
While the straight-to-Hulu film doesn’t develop its ideas of a person “paying the price” for their actions enough to have a proper conclusion, Shepherd’s script and Zoey Deutch’s performance engagingly pull the audience in for the chaotic ride of a web of profound lies, bad decisions, and aching for fame. Not Okay centers around Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch), an attention-starved photo editor and aspiring writer for a fictional magazine called Depravity, which is a perfect and hilarious name as it means moral corruption – a clear-cut kick starter for multiple jokes. Danni has no friends, no romantic prospects, and, most important of all, in her mind she has zero to no followers. She tries to pitch a piece to her editor about the multiple reasons for her sadness, but it is immediately rejected. Her editor tells her, “And you don’t feel like it comes off a little tone-deaf? Offensive, even?” Danni replies, “Can’t tone-deaf be, like, a brand, though?” You get these two hilarious remarks in the film’s second scene, which perfectly sets the tone for its satirical underpinnings.
Because Shepherd’s script and Zoey Deutch’s comedic timing are acute during that first interaction, Not Okay already gives you a glimpse of the lead character’s work environment and how she thinks and presents her ideas. You couldn’t ask for a better introduction for a character you’re meant to dislike. As Danni’s writing dreams keep getting demolished, she decides to tell a “harmless” lie: she’ll pretend to go to Paris for a writing retreat and post about it on Instagram by photoshopping various pictures, all taken from her New York apartment. One day, she wakes up, and her phone is blowing up with notifications; a terrifying incident has struck Paris – multiple bombings around the city’s most important landmarks. Instead of coming clean, Danni sees this as an opportunity to get entangled in a web of lies, as she “returns” home as a survivor marked with trauma – hoisting the #IAmNotOkay hashtag as her victim flag. What happens next is a series of provocative incitements that revolve around the hunger for fame and using victimhood as a means to achieve it.
As explained during the film’s first minute, things aren’t going to go Danni’s way; this isn’t that type of film. It will all come crashing down sooner rather than later, ending with the classic refrain of “be careful what you wish for”. Not Okay is divided into parts (Part I: No One Understands Me, Part II: The Lie, etc) that further elaborate on each “step” of her mischievous rise to fame and the eventual falling face-first. In another universe, there is a version of this movie that would infuriate people because its dialogue and script are so gen-z syrupy – containing too many modern remarks that would make people want to tune off rapidly. However, Quinn Shephard manages to take control of her script and stay between the lines of not being too influencer-esque and adding humanistic scenes. This story’s comedic aspects might revolve around the cultish social media world and influencer lifestyle, but its core is grounded.
Not Okay obviously wants to make fun of those who are aching for that way of life, but its focus leans toward something else. Shephard wants to showcase polar opposites and put them in the same situations to see their reactions – slowly examining their inner psyche. This is done via the characters of Danni Sanders and Rowan (Mia Isaac), a student-poet and well-known protester against gun violence. While Danni has faked being embraced as a victim following a sheer tragedy, Rowan went through an experience that has marked her life, and it won’t leave her. That, by itself, isn’t wholly original, as plenty of films that are morality lessons do such a thing. Nevertheless, it is interesting that “both” of them have a significant following on the various platforms, yet through different means. One of them is a gifted poet and speech giver, doing powerful movements against gun violence and is the face of revolution for the new generation. Meanwhile, the other is just following the trend of creating gimmicky privileged personas that are worried about looks, income, and collaborations.
This helps to create enough space for humanistic scenes between the two, as they express themselves sincerely on several topics revolving around trauma and presenting a counterfeit image of one’s self. What makes Not Okay tick is the excellent casting, ranging from the lead to the supporting cast, starting with the well-executed performance by Zoey Deutch. Deutch has been a scene-stealer of some sort throughout her career, as seen in Zombieland: Double Tap and Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some. However, her performance in this film showcases her true acting chops. Since she must put on a mask for most of the movie, Deutch must find a way to present a poker face while hiding plenty of emotions. And she does this indeed – we have a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In a quick second, she switches from a narcissistic demeanor to one of clarity. Throughout the film, we see her fighting her way through not showing her true self and intentions. As Not Okay transgresses, situations get even more complicated, causing her to break down entirely as she can’t handle lying to the entire world anymore, even if it might ruin her life for good.
This also breaks her heart, because she had finally found someone she could have called a friend in Rowan. Nonetheless, it was a relationship built on lies and schemes, even if her sympathy and care for Rowan were genuine. What I liked about Deutch’s portrayal is that even if she’s plotting this evil concoction of a plan, she’s never mean or callous to the people around her, with the apparent exception of the vile decision of pretending to be a victim. In the scenes where Danni is clear-minded, we see that she actually doesn’t want to hurt anybody, but her actions are too vile to be excused. It’s her time to pay the piper, and there’s no turning back. Equally matching Deutch’s excellent performance is Mia Isaac as Rowan, whose quick monologues, and scenes of compassion weigh more because of her acting rather than the writing itself. Then there’s Dylan O’Brien, who is just enjoying himself every second he’s on-screen.
Not Okay was just surprisingly enjoyable, to be completely honest. Although some of its provocative ideas flounder a bit, and it doesn’t dwell on the consequences of Danni’s actions as much as I would have liked it to, I think there’s enough to pick apart in Quinn Shephard’s picture. This character study uses a story of deception to craft its social commentary and satire about this generation’s fascination with fame and trends that will have viewers laughing, realizing how idiotic that lifestyle really is (at least the one being glamorized), and pondering about its personal moments. It is well balanced as it is not overly ridiculous in its satire nor too melodramatic in its melancholic successions. This is a showcase of both Zoey Deutch and Quinn Shephard’s talents – a film that I hope will shine a light on them and give them bigger opportunities. All latter-half faults aside, Not Okay is better than one might think and funnier than its trailer might suggest.
Not Okay will be available to watch on Hulu on July 29, 2022.