It’s a shame we don’t have more sharp-fanged communications-biz character studies like Quinn Shephard’s Not Okay. Too many would-be satires aim for easy political targets and end up ignoring the most despicable wrong-doings—for instance, social media. Writer-director Shephard’s takedown of online vanity bazaars follows the money and goes for the jugular in its story of a publicity-drunk fame seeker who gets in over her head and pays the price. As such, its investigation is hilarious until it’s pathetic.
Twenty-Something Danni (Zoey Deutch), a lowly “reporter” at a media hype machine called Depravity, is going nowhere fast. In the marketplace of ideas, she’s a standard-issue bubble gum chewer with a regular audience of fools, but that’s not enough. “I wanna be loved,” complains Danni, but her boss (comedian Negin Farsad) and office mates aren’t giving her any.
On the spur of the moment, Danni decides a trip to Paris for a “writers’ retreat” might stir up some interest in her “brand.” But she can’t afford the air fare, and so, after a terrorist attack near the Champs Élysées, Danni fraudulently claims she was in Paris and witnessed the carnage. Bingo, she suddenly attracts a flock of eyeballs. This sudsy reaction prompts her to publish a fake first-person account of the incident, “I Am Not Okay.” Almost everyone falls for it, and Danni achieves success. Temporarily.
Danni’s quest for notoriety reaches the heights of silliness early and often. If she were a fast-food worker or an overworked admin-assistant, we might feel sorry for her and cheer her on—but in modern America, no one has any sympathy at all for an influencer. She might as well be a crazed nanny who poisons babies.
Filmmaker Shephard, a former TV actor with two previous directorial efforts to her name—Blame (2017), a high-school revenge story in which she starred, and the wronged-best-friend short melodrama Till Dark (2015)—presumably understands a thing or two about the strivings of young Americans to be heard and seen as themselves above the roar of the hypnotic, all-pervasive nebula we call mass media. In Not Okay, we’re ready to believe she’s put everything she knows about people like Danni into one easy-to-swallow, semi-comedic narrative, with very little left out.
Deutch’s Every-Millennial Danni, who has a clichéd suburban mom and dad (Embeth Davidtz and Brennan Brown, teeth-gratingly maudlin) hanging on her every whine, appears to be the poster kid of the Tried-Too-Hard-But-Couldn’t-Maintain-the-Pose Society. In our most generous moments, we can imagine her social media career as a cry for help.
When she’s not pacing the floor, alone as usual, at her Bushwick, Brooklyn loft with her pet guinea pig, Danni plays the role of a quiet forest creature at Depravity headquarters in New York, where influencer-in-chief Colin (Dylan O’Brien) is the vape-smoking alpha-trendoid. The office is exactly like a high-school cafeteria, and Danni is on the outs—at least until her French adventure.
The candy-ass quotient reaches near-unbearable levels. Cue echoes of Molly Ringwald, Shannon Doherty, Alicia Silverstone, Elliot Page, Kristen Stewart, ad nauseam. Deutch fully holds her own in that company.
The character we’re counting on, for Danni’s sake, is Harper (Nadia Alexander), the combination office intellectual/all-seeing conscience, the only one who actually knows there’s such a thing as a fact checker. But then suddenly, out of left field, comes Rowan (Mia Isaac). She first shows up when Danni visits the survivors’ group in search of factoids, and is everything Danni really wants to be and can never attain.
Rowan is real. Her experiences are genuine and accordingly little spoken of. She may occasionally make an ageist statement, but has the power to make Danni feel guilty, and comes to the aid of her friend, even when Danni is assaulted by an Afghan war vet while grocery shopping. Money and likes can’t buy Rowan. Rowan rescues Danni, and allows Danni to rescue Not Okay. And that’s okay with us.
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