The title Not Okay has a double meaning that serves to accurately describe its content. Its surface definition stems from its protagonist’s assertion about her mental state following her survival of a deadly terrorist attack in Paris. Its secondary, and perhaps more potent explanation, is about how completely unacceptable her behavior is because she was never in Paris to begin with, and her decision to stick with and commit even further to a fabricated exploitation of others’ pain. It’s the ultimate white lie spiraling out of control, one that might have seemed harmless at the start but quickly becomes quite damaging and problematic.
It’s a sad comment on today’s reality that there are so many instances of horrific violence around the world that the invention of a catalytic incident feels almost superfluous. That exposition is simple and its details are unimportant, but what comes next is much more impactful. Danni Saunders (Zoey Deutch) comes off poorly even before a fake trip to a nonexistent writers’ retreat in France turns into an opportunity for fame and sympathy. The entitled magazine photo editor wants to be a writer, but her sample demonstrates a lack of talent and an extreme vanity. Told that her feeling that she “missed 9/11” because she was out of town during what she defines as a formative moment for her generation is tone-deaf, she seeks to own it as a brand in itself, akin to the work of someone like Lena Dunham.
Not Okay opens with a montage of the many vicious responses by online haters, decrying Danni as the worst kind of Karen and wishing upon her a horrible fate. This is not a redemption story, but instead one that showcases how the desire to be seen as special can lead people to do very regrettable things. In theory, it could happen to anyone, though likely not on such a grand scale or stage. In an age where notions like cancel culture and wokeness often trigger reactionary responses from those who feel like they are unfairly judged for what they have achieved, this film serves as a reminder that there are absolutely lines that should be drawn to ensure the preservation of a person’s decency and humanity. There should be ways for every individual to distinguish themselves without co-opting that which they know nothing about, a concept best exemplified by the cheerful grin on Danni’s face when she goes to speak before a crowd gathered to protest gun violence, blissfully ignorant of what it actually feels like to endure that kind of trauma.
This is the second feature film from writer-director Quinn Shephard, whose perspective as a filmmaker under thirty is remarkably interesting. Her debut, Blame, which opened at Tribeca in 2017, focused on a student-teacher relationship playing out alongside a school performance of The Crucible. Shephard once again revisits high school through supporting character Rowan (Mia Isaac), whose survival of a school shooting has turned her into an icon for those advocating for gun control, a magnetic figure not dissimilar from real-life students who have made activism their life’s mission. While it may not be overly sophisticated, Shephard once again demonstrates a remarkable grasp of storytelling and particularly the seamless transition from comedy to drama.
Actress Zoey Deutch is a perfect fit for the role of Danni, drawing on the energy and intensity of previous performances in projects like Buffaloed and Netflix’s The Politician to create a believably exaggerated character capable of taking this regrettable course. The film opens with a viewer discretion warning that it includes an “unlikeable female protagonist,” a claim that is absolutely true. Deutch ensures, however, that her portrayal is not one-note or dismissive, but instead a combination of ignorance and indulgence that makes watching her trainwreck implosion understandable even if it’s not possible to pinpoint the exact moment where her fate became inevitable.
In her sophomore effort, Shephard casts her previous film’s co-lead, Nadia Alexander, who is also now her real-life fiancée, in an entirely different supporting role, demonstrating an ability to focus on the compelling elements in this particular story. This film arrives at precisely the right time, when vitriolic social media use is at an all-time high and attempts to refashion society into something equitable for all are increasingly met with opposition, both from those who decry liberal weakness and others who seek to exploit it because they yearn to be singled out from those around them. Not Okay begins as an entertaining farce and manages to warp into a more resounding and poignant commentary on the power of messaging and identity.
Not Okay premieres exclusively on Hulu on Friday, July 29th.