Not Okay (2022)
Get famous or lie trying.
Writer/director Quinn Shephard’s film Not Okay begins with a satirical warning that the movie contains “Flashing Lights, depictions of trauma, and an unlikeable female protagonist.” That unlikeable female protagonist is Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch), who we see is reaping what she sowed after becoming a viral sensation based on a series of lies. Danni sits at her computer, going through a mountain of online hate — some from even vaguely recognizable accounts, including a shot that is clearly meant to be from Insta-famous Michael James Schneider (the guy who stands in front of his word balloons). Depending on how online you are, there are probably other instances of recognition, but Shepard gives us enough to relay that Danni is well and truly “canceled” and has become what no one wants to be, the main character on the internet.
To get to the point of how this all happened to Danni, we go back a couple of months. Danni is pitching an article to her boss, Susan (Negin Farsad), at an online magazine named Depravity — basically a stand-in for publications like Refinery29 and Buzzfeed. Danni’s article ‘Why Am I Sad’ boils down to the fact that she missed out on sharing trauma with other New Yorkers on 9/11 because she was on a cruise with her parents. When Susan points out that it’s more than a little tone deaf to have FOMO about 9/11, Danni blithely replies that she doesn’t even know anyone who died that day. She has other reasons to be ‘sad,’ too — she lives in the wrong part of Bushwick and can’t get a decent matcha anywhere, and she has problems working in an open office. Susan reminds Danni that she’s not actually a writer, but a photo editor who is overdue on her work.
Shepard’s deft character summation of Danni in that scene is clever and effective. Danni is an upper-middle-class Zellennial who has standard depression (another sting from Shepard) and longs to stand out in some way. She’s permanently attached to her phone and hopes for the dopamine hit that comes from people liking her social media posts. Danni is lonely and awkwardly tries to impress her seemingly much cooler co-workers, including Harper (Nadia Alexander), Larson (Dash Perry), and most importantly, the Insta blue tick influencer, Colin (Dylan O’Brien, giving massive Pete Davidson vibes).
When she runs into Colin on the street outside a new Matcha café that he is there to promote, he vaguely recognizes her from the office. Danni smokes an impossible joint with him and comes up with the lie that she will be attending a writer’s retreat in Paris. This white lie seems to impress Colin a little, and when she gets home, baked off her head, she decides to make it a reality. Danni can’t actually afford to go to France (although she probably could if she asked her parents for money, they’re not exactly poor), so inspired by her pet guinea pig’s wandering on her keyboard, she decides instead to put her photo editing skills to use and photoshop her way through Paris.
In her increasingly squalid apartment, Danni dons a red beret and stands in front of a ring light, taking her Insta-perfect shots. All seems to be going well for her as she finally manages to capture the attention of Colin and other social media influencers until the unexpected happens. There is a mass terrorist attack in Paris, and Danni has to decide whether to come clean about her ruse or to carry on the pretense that she was there. No surprise that she decides on the latter, especially as her social media has blown up, and suddenly, she is “seen” by everyone, including her implied emotionally distant mother, Judith (Embeth Davidtz).
Returning to her job at Depravity, she’s a celebrity. All her workmates that ignored her are now fawning over her and her boss Susan says she would be honored to give her a platform to write about her experience in the Paris bombings. Of course, Danni wasn’t there, so she has no experiences to write about and no understanding of trauma, so she joins a survivor group to leach off their stories. It’s there that she meets Rowan (Mia Isaac), a survivor of a mass school shooting who has become an anti-gun activist (think along the lines of the Parkland shooting survivors). Danni develops a friendship with the young woman and cribs her emotional state as the basis for her article “Not Okay,” which goes viral.
Filmmaker Shepard is well aware of the penchant for the public to take up hashtag activism. As Danni’s article becomes the source of the hashtag #IAmNotOkay, it is co-opted by the public and celebrities. Danni has never been happier, but she needs to maintain the façade that she’s a survivor. A dual dilemma presents itself as she begins to realize that her fame is essentially shallow and that she might actually be more comfortable in her friendship with Rowan and the other survivors than she is with the callow influencers who now crave her attention.
Social media satire is becoming a saturated field. From the brilliant and caustic Ingrid Goes West (2017) to the genre piece Spree (2020) to the upcoming Australian feature Sissy (2022), directors are trying to grapple with our permanent online curation of self. The issue with Not Okay is that it doesn’t go anywhere near as deep as it should. Once we are introduced to Rowan, we are given a real sense of the power and pitfalls of social media influence. Rowan is online to ensure that gun violence is eradicated, but she pays for it by dealing with constant harassment and trolls. The human being behind the movement is a fragile, PTSD-affected young woman who has become a siren for social change. Rowan has to be brave all the time to lead the movement, but she’s a grieving teen who can’t completely express her loss in public for fear of breaking down. Rowan’s arc is the most important aspect of the film, and it is sealed in the final scene when she is given the microphone to tell her truth.
Zoey Deutch, Before I Fall (2017), is a talented actor, and she manages to sell Danni’s narcissism as well as her loneliness. The question of whether we should invest in Danni is another matter. If, for a moment, you begin to relate to her, it’s only because Shepard created worse characters for you to dislike. Shepard doesn’t give Danni a redemption arc, although she does allow the character to grow. Clever flourishes such as having Caroline Calloway (remember her?) as a fellow member of a support group for people shamed on the internet will probably go over most of the audience’s head because every day, someone new is the internet’s main character.
Mia Isaac, Don’t Make Me Go (2022), as Rowan is spectacular, and if the narrative centered itself around her more, then Shepard’s film would have sharper teeth. The tendency for people to “make villains out of victims” (Rowan’s words) is a much more fertile ground to tread, especially in a period where we see conspiracy theorists spouting false flag rhetoric around mass shootings and people like Alex Jones making a career out of basically doxing the parents of the children of the Sandy Hook massacre. Troll armies emerge on social media to mock the trauma of survivors. The story of one privileged white woman’s grift does immeasurable harm to those that authentically suffered, and Shepard acknowledges how there will probably be a true-crime Netflix series about Danni Sanders. Shepard understands the media landscape and takes some wide swings at it, but often those swings miss the target because she’s spent too long concentrating on Danni and not long enough exploring the environment that produces someone like her.
It isn’t revelatory to tell a story warning people not to trust influencers or click-bait media sites; hopefully, we are generally savvy enough to know those things are empty calories. It also isn’t revolutionary to tell a generation they are spending too much time investing in their online personas. Unfortunately, Shepard does both, and she makes it the meat of Not Okay, which relegates large portions of the film itself to empty calories. Not Okay is not a bad film per se, but there is so much more that could have been and should have been said to make it a great one. Perhaps it’s time to let go of the cringe comedy aspect of social media satire, or at least if that is going to be the avenue taken, ensure that there is enough of a balance of the real-world harm that is done by the medium and maybe think about who you and everyone else you know online really are behind the screen, the filters, and the likes.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney