“Are you okay?”
Given the convergence of multiple collective traumas on human society in the past few years, the answer should be “No, I’m not.” There’s power in community, though. Not being okay can be an isolating experience. How freeing must it be to find one, ten, or thousands feeling slightly the same way?
Not Okay explores the ugly side of that dynamic when people use community and trauma to indulge their selfish impulses. Website photo editor Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch) is desperately craving attention: from her boss, colleagues (including Colin, Dylan O’Brien’s drugged-out micro-influencer), and the world at large. Seeking a reversal of social fortune, Danni pretends to attend a writer’s retreat in Paris on Instagram. At the same time, the city is subject to multiple terrorist attacks. Rather than admit her somewhat innocuous Instagram deception, Danni leans in, pretending that she experienced the attacks firsthand.
Not Okay gets into dicier, despicable waters by showing how Danni accomplishes her deceit. She finds a support group for people recovering from violent trauma to help her write an essay about her non-experience. Rowan (Mia Isaac) channels her rage over her school shooting into action, becoming a public voice with many followers. Danni attaches herself to Rowan and siphons the words she shared in good faith to bolster her fame. Soon, Danni has everything she’s ever wanted: social media fame, Colin’s attention, and a corner office. But at what cost?
Not Okay is astute in mapping out the artifice permeating much of today’s influencer-driven culture. Director and screenwriter Quinn Shephard turns the content creator ecosystem into a black comedy goldmine that also offers thoughtful critiques. It’s easy to laugh at Colin’s rolled-up pant leg or Danni’s wearing of a spangled beret amongst a group of passengers returning from France. It looks as ridiculous as it reads. Shephard’s observations of how deeply entrenched we are in the system, despite its tackiness and banality, are more compelling. Shephard manifests how trapped we are in surprising ways. During a bathroom hook-up, Colin uses Danni’s purported trauma as a twisted turn-on. Rowan, reeling from a school shooting drill, finds space to include Danni’s article in her Instagram story. Even in times of immeasurable crisis, the Instagram algorithm takes precedence.
Not Okay succeeds with its dark comedy but stumbles in heavier dramatic moments. The film can’t quite balance its skewering of digital culture with the painful ramifications of Danni’s lies. The biggest victim of those lies (that we see) is Rowan, easily the film’s best character. You can argue that Shephard intends to use Danni as a Trojan horse into Rowan’s journey. Through Danni’s eyes, we see the depths of Rowan’s trauma and the anxieties underpinning her activism. However, it’s still Danni’s film, and it often feels like Rowan solely exists to “teach” Danni something.
Sadly, the lessons don’t note the insidious racism of co-opting a Black teenager’s trauma for one’s gain. Of course, there are ramifications for Danni’s actions that further highlight the toxicity of being terminally online. However, the film doesn’t thoroughly interrogate Rowan and Danni’s different public experiences because of their race. The film notes that Danni’s whiteness gives her access to more opportunities, but it’s more than that. It doesn’t acknowledge how Rowan’s activism subjects her to tangible danger and how Danni’s whiteness shields her. Perhaps it’s too much consideration to ask of a 90-minute satirical comedy. However, Mia Isaac’s casting in this role deserves the effort, lest it is another case of tokenization.
Not Okay also struggles with other complex beats. Danni’s diagnosed mental illness could’ve allowed for meaningful commentary about social media’s negative impact on mental health. Sadly, the moral underpinnings of Danni’s lie take precedence. The emphasis on morality also leads the film down a dubious path, where it conveys Danni’s guilt as a trauma response. It’s troubling, if not outright offensive. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t offer a tidy resolution. It forces Danni to listen and stew in the muck of her actions. Not Okay forges paths for her to escape relatively unscathed, but in the end, it doesn’t let her off the hook. It’s a bold, daring choice.
Not Okay is designed as a star vehicle for Zoey Deutch to highlight her skill in navigating the film’s tricky tonal balance. She is strongest within its satirical space. Deutch plays Danni’s awkward self-involvement and desperation for external validation with a sly self-awareness that keeps the character from being insufferable. Dylan O’Brien’s sleazy aloofness makes for a fun foil for Deutch. (I could easily see them in an enemies-to-lovers rom-com.) Deutch is less convincing in the film’s dramatic moments, especially playing against Mia Isaac. Isaac is a stick of dynamite, conveying raging fury and heartbreaking vulnerability with outstanding clarity. It’s only natural that she leaves everyone else in her dust, even the lead actress.
Not Okay is a solid takedown of our dicey relationship with social media and how online fame doesn’t guarantee personal fulfillment. It doesn’t hit every mark it could, and with the zeitgeist’s obsession with the metaverse, it can’t help feeling a bit stale. However, it works enough to convince people to think twice before doing something as reprehensible as lying about a terrorist attack for likes and comments. Maybe that’s all we can ask for since there is nothing that companies like Instagram can do to make themselves better.
Not Okay is streaming on Hulu.