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Big swings can make for big misses, and that’s the situation writer-director Quinn Shephard’s internet satire-screed “Not Okay” finds itself in, lining up all kinds of juicy targets regarding fame and shame in our social media age, but proving not so discerning about character, humor, and story when it comes to following-through.
Starring Zoey Deutch as a wannabe influencer with a cringey ploy for viral notoriety, this queasy, ambitious whiff will hopefully prove to be just a sophomore slump for filmmaker Shephard, whose multi-hyphenate 2017 feature debut “Blame” (writing, directing, starring and editing at the age of 23) promised much from its coiled, clinical, near-noirish take on sexual jealousy in high school.
The craving-attention canvas Shephard is working with is bigger in “Not Okay” – wanting thousands to like you, not just someone across a classroom. But the tone is also edgier, which she attempts to get in front of at the start with a content alert (but really a parody of one) that warns of flashing lights, issues of trauma and “an unlikeable female protagonist.”
Said main character is Brooklynite Danni Sanders (Deutch), whom we meet tear-streaked at her laptop as she scrolls through a litany of hate-posts about her, with voiceover letting us know that her lifelong dream of being noticed has turned into a nightmare. Though our sympathy is quickly sparked, when the narrative begins by flashing back to two months prior, we can see the seeds of misadventure: Danni is perkily arguing to the incredulous editor (Negin Farsad) of the content-farm site where she works that her 9/11 FOMO (not knowing anyone who died that day) is a legitimate basis for her proposed essay “Why Am I So Sad?”
A clueless, lonely misfit with a chaotic style sense and a pathetic crush on dopey, hot weed influencer Colin (Dylan O’Brien), Danni decides posting from Paris is her ticket to Insta-cachet. She can’t afford to go there, however, so she sticks to Bushwick and, since she’s a photo editor, deftly fakes the backdrops. But when a sudden terrorist attack in the City of Lights spurs an outpouring of worry from her new followers, the attention proves too powerful to resist, and she doubles down on her online con by leaning full-bore into the identity of brave victim and stylish self-care icon. Soon her celebrity soars, workmates change their tune (except for “Blame” alum Nadia Alexander as suspicious colleague Harper) and Colin is turning “Are you OK?” into a pickup line.
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Under cinematographer Robby Baumgartner’s colorful urban palette, this is all played for broadly snarky laughs until, when attending a survivors’ therapy session (for – ick – research for her facade), Danni befriends Rowen (Mia Isaac, “Don’t Make Me Go”), who lived through a school shooting and has become a fiery public advocate for gun reform. What starts for Danni as a chance to further legitimize her brand becomes, over the course of knowing Rowen, the catalyst for much-needed soul-searching.
Yet while it’s easy to believe a shallow opportunist like Danni would glom on to someone whose fame has integrity, under the smallest scrutiny from the other’s perspective – that of a serious-minded POC teen with genuine trauma living in a different movie from this glaringly artificial white chick – Danni’s and Rowen’s fast, consequential, unlikely bond feels preposterous, even if it’s the screenplay mechanism Shephard admittedly needs to land her biggest points about privilege, co-opted activism, and emotional theft.
At its heart, the problem isn’t that “unlikeable” tag Shephard is clearly proud of: Danni is just impossible and unfunny, an empty clown who’s more vessel for the filmmaker’s critique than a complicated character tampering with the dark side. It especially doesn’t help Deutch, whose all-over-the-place portrayal is too cartoonish to sell the first half’s meager laughs and not keen enough for the late-stage vulnerability that needs to match Isaac’s authentically simmering turn. Even a couple scenes with Embeth Davidtz and Brennan Brown as Danni’s coddling parents add little to our understanding of her, beyond signaling an advantaged upbringing.
The benefit of the doubt, considering Shephard’s canny acknowledgement at the end of problematic white narratives, is that Danni’s skin-deep soul is the point – a hoped-for swan song, perhaps, for a certain kind of culturally dominant perspective. Maybe that’s being generous when you want “Not Okay” to reach the heights of “Eighth Grade” or “I May Destroy You” instead of being an off-putting misfire. Shephard is still a percolating talent to watch, even if her slickly executed, attitude-thick second feature ultimately doesn’t illuminate social-media psychology about victims and villains beyond what you already knew.
“Not Okay” premieres Friday on Hulu.