THE STORY – A misguided young woman who is desperate for friends and fame fakes a trip to Paris to update her social media presence. A terrifying incident takes place in the real world, which becomes a part of the imaginary trip and offers all she wants.
THE CAST – Zoey Deutch, Dylan O’Brien, Mia Isaac & Embeth Davidtz
THE TEAM – Quinn Shephard (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 96 Minutes
By Nicole Ackman
The opening monologue of “Not Okay” asks the audience, “Have you ever wanted to be noticed so badly you didn’t care what it was for?” Written and directed by Quinn Shephard (Following up on her indie directorial debut “Blame”), this dark comedy follows a young woman who tells a lie that promotes her to internet fame and the swift fall from grace that comes with it when the inevitable truth comes out. With cancel culture being discussed daily in the media and people continually digging up celebrity’s backgrounds looking for the next flaw that will take them down, the topic is certainly relevant for this kind of story, and in Shephard’s hands, the tone, humor, and satire are all well-balanced.
“Not Okay” opens with Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch) crying over people online talking about a mysterious transgression she’s recently caused. These clips include several actual internet personalities, and seeing a few recognizable YouTubers strengthens the moment’s authenticity. In a warning to the audience, Danni says, “Be careful what you fucking wish for,” and then the film backtracks to two months ago to where the lie that would lead to her downfall started. The film is divided into mini sections with amusing titles like “Part I: No One Understands Me” and “Part III: Oh Fuck.”
Danni is a self-absorbed young woman who is lacking in tact (For example, she says that she has FOMO about missing out on experiencing 9/11 because she was on a cruise at the time). She’s a photo editor at a trendy publication called Depravity but dreams of being a writer as she’s constantly pitching to her editor (Embeth Davidtz). Unsurprisingly, she rubs everyone the wrong way, from her mother (who says she’s too busy to hang out with her) to her coworkers. She tells her queer colleagues (most notably Shephard’s real-life fiance and “Blame” co-star Nadia Alexander) that they’re lucky to be a part of a community, while she, as a straight white woman, is not. Of course, a woman this cringey must have an equally cringey crush, and another one of her coworkers, bleach blond internet sensation Colin (Dylan O’Brien), whom we first see emerging from a vape cloud, definitely fits the bill. He’s a clout-chasing Pete Davidson-wannabe, and Danni is desperate to get his attention. So much so that she tells him that she’s going to Paris next week for a writer’s retreat. Naturally, this doesn’t win her any points with him, but she does feel she has to follow through. So Danni crafts an elaborate lie, photoshopping Instagram posts to portray an entire Parisian vacation. However, when an actual terrorist attack occurs near where she posted her last fake photo, people come out of the woodwork to ask her if she’s okay. With her parents’ coddling her and her coworkers suddenly willing to hang out with her, it’s unsurprising that Danni laps up the attention, playing the victim and creating the viral hashtag #ImNotOkay. But the lie gets most intricate when she goes to a survivor support group to research the article she’s writing about her experiences (and because she needs to keep up appearances to maintain the lie) and meets Rowan (Mia Isaac), a well-known survivor activist with actual pain and trauma to speak to in her life.
To Shephard’s credit, the film manages not to trivialize the experiences of actual survivors, as several are presented to us as support group members in a serious manner. We’re also shown the real effects such horrible experiences can have on people’s everyday lives through the character of Rowan, whose strong emotional response and lingering PTSD contrast with Danni’s shallowness, even as she begins to understand the gravity of her lie and change into a somewhat better person.
Deutch is ideally suited for the outrageous role of Danni after showing us her magnetic range in films such as “Buffaloed,” “Set It Up,” and “Everybody Wants Some!!.” “Not Okay” never tries to skirt around how terrible Danni is. Unlike “Dear Evan Hansen,” in which Evan has fallen into the lie and cannot find his way out, the film makes no secret of the fact that Danni has willingly leaped into it. What makes the movie so radical is that it doesn’t allow her a redemption arc or try to absolve her of her misdoings. Deutch is an engaging enough actress that it’s easy to stay invested even through all of Danni’s awkward and downright immoral behavior. However, after a breakthrough performance in the recently released “Don’t Make Me Go,” Isaac emerges as the clear standout of the cast, bringing a deep-seated anger to Rowan that is very affecting. With both of these performances (her first two official acting credits), she’s not only set to have a breakout year, but the future is looking extremely bright for her based on these two performances alone.
Danni’s obliviousness and inability to read the room lead to some painfully funny and anxiety-inducing moments that make the movie almost difficult to watch. However, these moments are contrasted with sorrowful ones filled with honest introspection and nuance on topics that have been trivialized. Shephard shows an impressive attention to detail with many pop culture references and topical awarenesses – from Danni’s guinea pig named Ginny Weasley to her taking Plan B post-sex – that ground the film in the here and now, making it relatable and hopefully teachable as our society plunges itself deeper into a rabbit hole of selfishness all in an effort to gain one extra follower online.
Unfortunately, “Not Okay” doesn’t seem quite sure what it wants to say about cancel culture despite much talk about it. This might not be an issue if the film’s dramatic opening didn’t seem like it was teeing up an equally dramatic statement of some kind by the time we get to the film’s end. Are we supposed to feel bad for Danni or feel that she got what she deserved? Are we supposed to think all people who get canceled on the internet are as messed up as Danni? Surely not, because most people are not as morally crazed as she is. Even if its message is a bit unclear, “Not Okay” entertainingly highlights the immense potential shown by Deutch, Isaac, and Shephard, offering something completely fresh and topical in the black comedy genre.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Zoey Deutch and Mia Isaac both shine in this highly satirical, sharp, black comedy.
THE BAD – It never really comes to the point about cancel culture that it feels it’s building towards.
THE OSCAR PROSPECTS – None