Netflix are no strangers to TV show’s that invite us into the world of teenagers struggling to cope with their hidden flaw, and the drastic rampage through high school that shortly follows their every move. However, unlike Stranger Things, Riverdale and The End of the F***ing World’s teenage dilemmas, I Am Not Okay With This is completely different. While it does possess similar traits to other Netflix offerings that aren’t nearly as cool as Hawkins’ fight with Demogorgons, or Alyssa and James’ ominous quests, the show might just be better than Eleven’s telepathic abilities as it takes teen angst to a whole other, unexpected level.
Adapted from Charles Forsman’s graphic novel of the same name, the latest small-screen depiction of the angst-ridden, hormone-soaked teenager is Sydney Novak (Sophia Lillis). She is more twisted and mysterious than you would expect from a show that comes across as a warm Netflix sit-off. After her family’s sudden relocation to a stultifying small town, the seven-episode-long series follows Sydney’s perspective as her character deals with her father’s suicide (in their home basement), and her brutally unsympathetic mother who, working endless shifts at a coffeehouse, puts the home tasks to her daughter. On top of that, she’s in a world filled with boys who take two looks at her face and give a snide remark telling her to smile more. Her best friend Dina (Sofia Bryant) gets constantly hogged by her “all American golden boy” (douchebag) boyfriend Brad Lewis (Richard Ellis) and Sydney’s stubborn outbreak of pimples on her left thigh makes her wonder if being a teenager is even worth it.
However, despite the small wonder of ending it all that lingers in Sydney’s mind throughout her restless high school days, it seems that her manifestations of toiling up her emotions and wearing the same unwashed sweater twice in a week builds affection from the local nerd, Stanley Barber (Wyatt Oleff). Even though the viewer— if not yet Sydney— knows her own interests lie more towards Dina than anywhere else. But, as the episodes go by, it becomes noticeable that her head is more fixated on the mass of emotions inside her that unintentionally blasts road signs across railroad tracks, blows holes in walls, and causes jock Brad to induce an unexpected nosebleed.
As the series goes on, each episode uncovers a layer of Sydney’s telekinetic powers that is all the more bizarre, and a larger plot starts to form that awakens a danger that Lillis’ performance manages to support wonderfully. Conveying the depths of numbness and loss beneath a strict expression and brown suede jacket, Lillis —particularly in the voice-over excerpts from the diary her guidance counsellor has instructed her to keep— is ultimately the standout of the show. An up-and-coming actress that plays the secretive outsider right down to her vibrant pixie-haircut and explosive attitude.
Oleff’s performance as the vinyl-obsessed outsider fits perfectly with Lillis’ wildly conflicting emotions and quirky facade her character presents to the world. Together the pair are incredible opposite one another, running off each other with sharp lines that make the plot, and their characters, shine brighter in each scene. In retrospect, Sydney and Stanley, intertwined around their love for Bloodwitch, smoking blunts during the high school football game, and their “deepest, darkest secret” sharing, are merely the twentieth-century embodiments of Andie Walsh and Duckie Dale from the 1986 classic Pretty in Pink. And, while conveying Hughes’ iconic characters to the point where they’re sharing the same dance-floor at their homecoming dance, rehashing past arguments and dancing to slow-disco tunes (dressed almost entirely in the same blue and pink fabric), I Am Not Okay With This does at times feel like an ode to eighties films on the small screen. A creative decision, complimented beautifully with its stunning soundtrack, that helps the series have a much more retro feel.
Netflix have provided a series that’s filled with suspense that at times builds to a somewhat predictable climax. However, despite its stereotypical high school tropes and relationships that come across rather weak throughout the seven-episodes, it doesn’t stop the satisfaction of it all as a whole. Sydney’s story is one of remaking her own world while coming to grips with herself, her friends, her sexuality, and her ability to destroy individuals, institutions, and everything in between. Though, with the ability to throw bowling balls across the room (making a strike!) sound-tracked to perfection with “Stanley’s Legendary Mix ”, it could all seem normal. And as Sydney puts it: “It’s probably just puberty.”
I Am Not Okay With This is now available to stream on Netflix
by Keli Williams
Keli Williams is a freelance writer based in Liverpool. She loves all things cinema and Paul Thomas Anderson. Her favourite films include Almost Famous, Suspiria, The Virgin Suicides, and Chungking Express. Follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd at @beforesnrise