From social media star to most-hated woman on the internet…
Initially, I assumed the disclaimer at the beginning of director Quinn Shephard’s Not Okay to be tongue-in-cheek. “Content Warning,” it alerts. “This film contains flashing lights, themes of trauma, and an unlikable female protagonist. Viewer discretion advised.”
Okay, I thought. So this will be a statement about gender disparity–how what makes a male protagonist likable makes a female protagonist totally unwatchable for some. But the overarching theme of the film isn’t really about gender, as much as I think gender inequality is the message Shephard intended by the disclaimer. One can, rather, take it as a genuine warning. You will hate Danni Sanders (but love actress Zoey Deutch), and rightly so. Proceed with caution.
Who is Danni Sanders? Not many people know the answer to that, at first. She’s a pretty insignificant player at her workplace. A writer who just wants to be relevant but feels excluded due to her straight White identity and the distinct lack of trauma in her life (she feels she missed out on experiencing 9/11)–Danni is obtuse, offensive, privileged. And she doesn’t realize any of this.
She wants attention, and she initially grasps for it with a little white lie. She tells her crush, social media star Colin (Dylan O’Brien), she’s going to a writers’ retreat in Paris. Her Instagram portrays a photoshopped experience of a glamorous vacation–until reality sets in. When a terrorist bombs the Arc de Triomphe while Danni was supposed to be there, the influencer’s lie spins out of control. She “returns” from Paris a survivor and grossly co-opts the trauma of Black shooting survivor Rowan (a superb Mia Isaac) to gain celebrity status. But is the attention all it’s cracked up to be?
It isn’t in Shephard’s 2017 debut film, Blame, in which she experiments with some more “unlikable females” in a high school setting that reflects the hazards of 1690s Salem (taken from Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible). With Not Okay, Shepard gives us something more polished but less nuanced, trading in the subtle complexities of literary adaptation for direct and scathing satire of modern society.
But Danni is a character relentlessly oblivious to her privilege, so Shephard is working under the assumption that some of her viewers might relate. Not Okay offers consistent reinforcement of Danni’s awfulness, from her proclamations that marginalized people are “so lucky,” to the way she brushes aside anyone who can’t help her to fame. This may all feel like overkill, but it’s intentional nonetheless. “If you don’t already see this as a problem,” Shepherd is saying about White privilege and toxic influencer culture, “maybe you’ll finally get it now.”
It doesn’t go much deeper than that. Shepherd is more concerned with depicting reality than asking searching questions about that reality. But the resulting picture is a convincing denouncement of the ways our culture categorizes and exploits trauma. “Your pain is your biggest asset,” Rowan at one point tells Danni–but that’s not an invitation, as Danni takes it, to manufacture trauma you don’t have.
Read More: Not Okay Ending Explained
Verdict - 6.5/10