2022 | rated R | starring Zoey Deutch, Mia Isaac | written & directed by Quinn Shephard | 1 hr 40 mins |
Self-absorbed Gen-Zer Danni (Zoey Deutch, Zombieland: Double Tap) finds herself internet famous and thrown into the spotlight after using her social media to pretend to be at a writer’s retreat in Paris on the very day a terrorist attack sets off bombs at the Arc de Triomphe and around the city. Danni continues to let everyone think that she is a survivor, finding a friend in a support group in Rowan Aldren (Mia Isaac), a school shooting survivor turned internet-famous activist. Danni struggles to keep up the fraud as her fame and notoriety get out of control.
The quickest way for a movie to rub me the wrong way is to put up a warning before the studio logos that what we’re about to see contains an “unlikable female protagonist”. You’ve been warned. It’s unclear if this is a joke or a message from the studio or distributor Hulu or the movie itself, but the need to trigger warn the audience that your movie contains a complicated, morally grey, anti-hero woman is a quick sign that anyone whose film experience extends beyond TikTok videos should flee immediately.
Not Okay is ultimately not as bad as all that, because the story is fairly solid and it has a game lead performance from Zoey Deutch. It’s a satire with a capital S and big lanterns hung on everything that isn’t nearly as sharp or insightful as it thinks it is, but it has a few pointed moments along the way. We’re introduced to Danni as a young writer who aspires to write something more profound than her limited and cushy life experience can give her. She has FOMO over 9/11 because she was on a cruise and not in the US when the terrorist attack happened. She lies to everyone saying she’s in Paris, happens to be at the center of her own terrorist attack and simply lies by omission, letting everyone else continue to believe she was a survivor. Then we wait for her lie to be exposed and it all to come crashing down. You’ve seen this before, though the movie’s refusal to give Danni a redemption arc is notable.
Still, something about Not Okay didn’t sit with me. It seemed like it was unfocused as a satire, that it was granting a premise that I don’t accept.
So let’s back up. In 1999’s Fight Club Brad Pitt and Edward Norton mused about emasculated men living hollow lives awash in cushy consumerism and not being tested by real hardship. They made Fight Club as a misguided solution to it. Everyone dismissed the movie as petty men being petty. In reality, we created social media where both men and women would channel that cushy life desire to be challenged into claiming victimhood status for anything and everything. Instead of throwing fists they posted video laments for clicks, Likes and views. That alternate reality, where people can live parallel lives online, that they chase fame for doing little, that the cyber town square can foment an outrage mob from safety behind a screen and anonymous username – that used to be something that movies made fun of. From Catfish to Aubrey Plaza’s Ingrid Goes West, obsession with internet fame and the delusional reality that you’re friends on Facebook are actually your friends – the social paradigm of the internet itself – used to be the source of the mockery.
Quinn Shepard’s Not Okay feels like a movie that crosses that rubicon. It exists in a world where all of that is there, but accepts the premise that all of that corrosive internet-inspired behavior is your new normal. Just go with it. It says there are ways to behave online and if you don’t follow the rules, you will be punished and deserve to be punished. Post that French flag in your profile or else you’re a bad person. Shepard has no barbs for the social media mob who has never met Danni, nor the social media sites that power her delusions in the first place. It pretends that everyone else online is being authentic and she is an outlier.
It has that same lack of skepticism for Rowan who is shown as the authentic survivor to Danni’s lie at every turn. Their dynamic works, Deutch and Isaac have good friend chemistry which is what makes the ending work, but it all feels very black and white and just reinforces the idea that in the real world everyone but Danni has pure motives. Picture this – in an even sharper movie, Danni’s lie would put her in contact with Rowan who, while a genuine victim herself, was discovered to be manipulated by political or corporate forces that couldn’t care less about gun violence that parallels Danni’s manipulation of a terrorist attack. Some delicious dramatic irony. But that’s me. My desire for a Simpson-esque cynical satire where everyone is wrong isn’t the world Shepard is playing in. She believes this stuff and that’s why this movie doesn’t work.
Instead, Shepard shifts from satire to a friendship story. That piece does work, like I said, as a basic story as an arc for Danni and a showcase for Deutch, Not Okay works. But it just works. It doesn’t go for the jugular and it doesn’t understand the depth of the problem its trying to confront. Instead it creates a scapegoat.