“The movie takes big, bold, purposefully discomforting swings but then becomes oddly insular, as if unsure of how to resolve things once they’ve been fully set into motion.”
by Ken Bakely
Quinn Shepherd’s Not Okay is a movie steeped in anguish. Her characters express pain, either genuine or invented, and pain that can be inflicted on them or they can unleash on others – and to her credit, she lets the discomfort this causes linger. The humor is biting, the ascent is relentless, and the denouement is harrowing. From moment to moment, the pieces of this movie are expertly crafted, but there’s something big missing when it comes to conveying what this whole experience should mean. Is it meant to be a satire of an entire culture or of its particular lead character? The film never really figures that out, and contrasted against the knowing brazenness of the actions it’s depicted in the leadup, it can feel disappointingly empty as a result. Shepherd’s script follows Danni (Zoey Deutch), an aspiring writer who works a thankless job as a photo editor for a popular website. While trying to impress Colin (Dylan O’Brien), her thoroughly unimpressive work crush, she says she is due to head to Paris for a writers’ retreat. She isn’t, but now she must go through with it, photoshopping herself into pictures of the city and posting them on her Instagram feed. It’s all fun and games until a terrorist attack rips through the city, leading her family, friends, and colleagues to blanket her in the adoration, attention, and sympathy that she craves. They believe she is a traumatized survivor of a horrendous incident, and she will do nothing to dispel that.
Shepherd then tracks Danni’s journey from the first series of lies to something far more behemoth, shocking, and daunting, and it’s from there that the film tries to comment on how the internet assists the wildfire spread of her falsehoods. Danni attends a support group in order to figure out what actual survivors say and think, and with laser-like efficiency, befriends Rowan (Mia Isaac), a teen who survived a school shooting and became a famous gun control advocate. With an eye towards Rowan’s sizable social media following, Danni co-opts Rowan’s speeches into an article she pens for her employer, in which she attempts to start a hashtag movement – #IAmNotOkay – which she keeps just vague enough to allow other people to insert their own struggles. It’s everywhere, it’s viral, it’s famous. Better still, she’s famous.
We know that, from here, it can only go downhill – and in case anyone thought Danni might get away with it, the film begins in medias res with clips of internet personalities sharing her home address and dubbing her worse than Hitler – and Not Okay certainly doesn’t short-change itself in depicting Danni’s fall from grace. But what does the movie want to achieve from there? The movie takes big, bold, purposefully discomforting swings but then becomes oddly insular, as if unsure of how to resolve things once they’ve been fully set into motion. It has dedicated itself – not without skill or accomplishment, mind you – to telling a story of an advantageous liar who tells a string of untruths to advance their stature, and whose lies spin out of control through the internet. Yet this is highly familiar territory – both in fiction and in real life – and in the end, the film doesn’t set itself apart or make particularly meaningful observations.
Not Okay winds up in a strange situation: so much of Shepherd’s work here, as writer and director, is good in working out small details or observations – whether of the sheer brazenness of Danni’s con or the particulars of how things spread online – but not so much with the bigger arcs and themes. Still, her cast is very capable. Deutch depicts Danni’s shameless acts with a straightforward bluntness, wordlessly conveying the idea that the only trait driving the character more than desperation is impulsiveness, as lies keep piling atop each other. And in only her second feature film, Isaac is revelatory as Rowan, giving the character a depth of spirit and tumult of emotion that makes the inevitable betrayal she suffers all the more wrenching. Through fine performances and well-tuned scenes that range from spitefully funny to unsparingly dire, Not Okay seems like it’s steadily escalating to something encompassing and enveloping in its commentary on the social landscapes or the individual traits it starts to skewer. However, the movie eventually spins out and retreats to a rote and obligatory conclusion, and it doesn’t properly work through the chaos it has built up.