There’s a lot to unpack in Quinn Shephard’s Not Okay, her follow-up to her debut film, the 2017 high school drama Blame. Channeling the energy of a writer possessed with the deserved, righteous anger of her generation, Shepherd’s latest bares all twenty rows of its razor-sharp teeth from the moment go. From the condemnation of eager-to-please influencer culture while refraining from out and out speaking down to influence types themselves, to the casual way white people appropriate other people’s identities to, often, greater success than the marginalized voices they’ve stolen from, and the desensitization we’ve found ourselves up against with gun violence, the script all but runs out of room. It’s a blistering, damning portrait of a community at odds, funneled into a complicated, deeply flawed, and selfish protagonist.
Zoey Deutch plays the said character, one who is given her own warning at the start of the film as being an “unlikable female character,” one of the brighter lamp posts that tend to signal in all the assholes ready to chastise a female-driven story that fails to fit into neatly aligned boxes. Danni Sanders is messy. She’s lazy and privileged and disliked by her colleagues who, despite being in her generation, aren’t fazed by her insincerity and desperation to be liked – even if said affection is found just in her number of followers.
Stoned and having found herself caught in a lie about attending a writers retreat in Paris to impress a boy (Dylan O’Brien as the hilariously douchey Colin), she comes up with a whole ruse to fake to everyone in her life that said retreat is real. This includes a fake website, photoshopped images of her in front of famous landmarks, and a carefully curated and timed feed. It all hits the fan however when there’s a terrorist attack where she was meant to be staying, and her, pathetic but, ultimately, a harmless lie gets much more involved as we watch as she constantly careens towards certain and needed humiliation.
The film could’ve just been that and, frankly, there’s plenty of humor to mine from the privileged and manipulative white woman. What greatly enhances the story, however, is the introduction to Mia Isaac’s Rowan, a teenager that Danni meets at a support group for people who have faced traumatic instances of violence. Rowan, clearly suffering from PTSD, has become a spokesperson for survivors, despite being in high school, after having survived a school shooting.
Again, it would have been easy to just show the parallels between Danni and Rowan with the former’s deceit only bolstering Rowan’s status as the golden example of a survivor. Instead, the script by Shephard skewers that ideology too. Danni is still 100% in the wrong, a fact that the film is never in contention with. In fact, it goes out of the way to make sure that we, the audience, are never led to think that the moments of empathy or camaraderie that Danni expresses are an indication of her becoming a better person. Rather, it simply demonstrates what is true of many of us, that we’re capable of being selfish while also possessing the capability to care. In this case, the bad just manages to way outweigh the good.
Countering that is that Rowan’s status as a youth leader is questioned too. Not because she doesn’t deserve the accolades, no, but because she’s too young to have to bear the title of a movement leader. It’s just another facet of today’s social climate that we’ve become too ready to accept, that a kid should both be able to live through hell and then manage to become better, brighter, and morally perfect as a way to fix the wrongs adults have caused.
If this all makes it sound less like the comedy it was marketed as, well, that’s because it is. While Deutch is uncomfortably hilarious in Danni’s unbelievable lack of social awareness, the comedy is derivative mostly from the situational and the aspects from day to day. That tonal dissonance makes for one of the film’s weaker areas, as the story wrestles with just how much we can and should laugh, how much of it comes from the shock of what a character is saying, and less how well the joke is landed.
That said, the film is largely a success, and Shephard has an eye for the artificiality of areas Danni wishes to insert herself. Everything from the soundtrack, to the outfits Danni wears that too, indicate someone trying to appeal to a younger demographic, is handled with care.
Isaac is the true MVP of the film in a resounding, moving performance as a teenager trying her best to dig herself out of the rubble while simultaneously becoming the voice of a generation. There’s a persistent note of sadness and vulnerability that makes her the clear heart of the story. Between this and Don’t Make Me Go, Isaac should be poised for superstardom. Because even those who walk away from Not Okay less than impressed will remember her enraged, impassioned performance.
Shephard once again proves herself an exciting, emerging voice on the scene and one that is demonstrating growth and a honed skill as a filmmaker. Not Okay is riveting and engaging storytelling and it’s seemingly just the start of what is hopefully a long and commanding career.
Not Okay premieres on Hulu July 29, 2022. Watch the trailer below.