Writer-director Quinn Shephard is back with her sophomore feature, Not Okay, a satirical black comedy which opens with a tongue-in-cheek content warning about an unlikeable female protagonist. We’re first introduced to Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch) as she sits in front of her laptop, tears streaming down her face, reading an endless barrage of hate. In a ruthless montage, she’s called a liar, a bitch, a cunt, a sociopath, inhuman, and worse than Hitler. Alongside an influx of death threats, this can only mean one thing: Danni has been cancelled. “Have you ever wanted to be noticed so badly, you didn’t even care what it was for?” she asks before breaking the fourth wall to answer with a warning: “Be careful what you fucking wish for.”
Jumping back two months prior, an early scene establishes the type of person she is. Danni works as a photo editor at a popular online magazine, Depravity, but she dreams of being a writer. She pitches an article titled “Why Am I So Sad?” to her boss, Susan (Negin Farsd), which includes missing out on the generational trauma of 9/11 because she was on a cruise with her family. When Susan calls her tone-deaf, Danni’s ignorance, entitlement, and privilege still shine through: “Can’t tone-deaf be, like, a brand? Like Lena Dunham?”
Danni embodies an insufferable archetype. We never learn much about who she really is beyond her cringe-worthy use of slang and offbeat gestures. Deutch plays her skillfully, having portrayed her fair share of unlikeable female protagonists, but Deutch maintains her charm. Danni’s ill-thought-out comments, such as her telling her gay coworkers (including Shephard’s real-life finacée, Nadia Alexander) that they are “so lucky, [they] have a community,” demonstrates her lack of awareness but also highlights the fact she’s depressed and so friendless that she can’t even get her own parents (Embeth Davidtz and Brennan Brown) to hang out with her.
In a desperate attempt to gain followers and impress her crush, Colin (Dylan O’Brien), a vaping, weed-smoking fuckboy whose identity is carefully stitched together by cultural appropriation, Danni fakes a trip to a writers’ retreat in Paris. When a terrorist attack occurs minutes after she supposedly posts from the Arc de Triomphe, everyone mistakenly believes Danni is one of the survivors. She finds herself caught in a dangerous lie which gives her everything she’s ever wanted.
Not Okay’s exaggerated and absurd plot contains enough real elements of the silliest and scariest parts of our current socio-political landscape that it actually feels believable. What happened to Danni can happen to anyone, though not always to the same extremes. The costumes, set design, props, and cinematography go a long way in critiquing Gen Z culture. Not to mention, the film’s amusingly titled chapters provide an apt structure, all divided into digestible segments.
Primarily satirizing both influencer culture and cancel culture, Shephard’s script manages to cover a lot of ground in 1h40m, including the additions of virality, white feminism, school shootings, terrorism, and appropriation but she doesn’t say anything new. The writing can be considered shallow in places, but there is strength and acuity in leaving some things open to interpretation. Shephard doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but she presents enough of the right questions to get her audience thinking.
Not Okay, however, is light on examining how we get someone like Danni in the first place. It can be hard to sympathize with Danni when we’ve been taught that the views and feelings of privileged and morally problematic people like her hold no value. In a world where everyone is competing to be the most oppressed and the most traumatized, it’s not surprising that Danni feels sad that she missed out on developing a formative trauma bond with her peers over 9/11, despite how insane that sounds. The easiest way to get internet famous today is for social justice activism and tragedy, especially if you’ve experienced it first-hand. A large subset of influencer culture rewards victimhood, making people co-opt what they don’t understand because trauma can be sold as a brand. As long as your performance is believable, you will get attention through sympathy, followers, and sponsorship deals.
Shephard seamlessly blends satire and comedy with affecting drama throughout the film, particularly when Danni meets Rowan (Mia Isaac), an inspiring 17-year-old school shooting survivor who is genuinely traumatized and uses her platform to advocate for gun control. Isaac embodies her character with strength and vulnerability in a poignant portrayal of trauma. She is most compelling when performing the hard-hitting, well-written slam poetry pieces dotted throughout the film — particularly when discussing, with raw emotion, how she was affected by Danni’s lies.
Danni uses Rowan to advance her fame, but she eventually gains some nuanced intelligence and compassion, allowing her to develop a conscience — but it’s too late. Danni doesn’t get a redemption arc to complete her story in a bold move. The juxtaposition between Rowan’s PTSD symptoms and Danni’s abhorrent behaviour highlights the disparity between two of the most common archetypes we see online.
The ending may be unsatisfying to those who enjoy typical conflict resolution and want to see Danni redeemed, but others will want to see her suffer. As human beings, we cannot get enough of the hero versus the villain narrative. We’re always trying to sort everything and everyone into categories of good or bad, but the truth is that these conflicting traits exist in each of us. Shephard excels in finding a balance between not villainizing Danni and ensuring that she takes responsibility for the pain she has caused others. It leaves Rowan with the last word about how rightfully angry she is.
We know that, eventually, Danni will be okay because privileged white women usually are — as exemplified by Caroline Calloway’s apt cameo; a nice touch for those who will recognize her, whether you love her or hate her. What you want for Danni and how you feel about her will depend on the type of person you are, and that’s what makes Shephard’s feature so thought-provoking: you be the judge.
Not Okay premieres on Hulu and Disney+ (non-US regions) on July 29
by Toni Stanger
Toni Stanger is a film and screenwriting graduate with a passion for cats, horror films and middle-aged actresses. Her favourite films include Gone Girl, Heathers, Scream and Excision. You can find her on Twitter and Letterboxd.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Films, Reviews, Women Film-makers
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