Hitting a roadblock as an aspiring writer, Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch) has her ambitions set high. Working as a photo editor for the apt-named Depravity, an online magazine, she quite simply lacks wherewithal to get herself noticed. That’s not for lack of trying, as she berates her boss with naive drivel: one piece she turns into the publisher suggests she’s unlucky that she was on a cruise on September 11th, and never got to bond with her peers over the subsequent trauma for those who witnessed 9/11. Needless to say, not only is she lacking in the talent department, but also in the morality department.
Among the masses of whom Danni craves attention is a coworker of hers named Colin (Dylan O’Brien), also a popular Instagram influencer. The two have a chance meeting outside a street café, and a flustered Danni tells him she plans on heading to Paris for a writer’s retreat; she does not. Unable to afford a plane ticket, Danni considers asking her parents for the funding, but ultimately opts for a bit of a more radical option. Utilizing her talents as a photo editor, Danni gets to work photoshopping pictures for social media that give the impression she’s in Paris instead of her apartment. Her lie promptly starts to spin out of control, however, when a terrorist attack hits the very Paris tourist destination she was “visiting.” Instead of coming clean, Danni decides to continue with her lies.
With a setup like that, it’s no wonder Quinn Shephard’s sophomore feature, Not Okay, opens with a content warning for “flashing lights, themes of trauma, and an unlikable female protagonist.” Deutch’s character here is basically the same dramatic one she played in Zombieland: Double Tap, but with just enough of a brain to plan something so lacking in morality. Needless to say, the warning preceding the film is certainly accurate; Deutch gives us a character that you will either hate to love or love to hate.
Working as something of a secret character foil to Danni is a teenage girl she meets in a trauma support group named Rowan (Mia Isaac, who delivers on a very demading role); having survived a school shooting, Rowan is a major figure in anti-gun activism. As Rowan and Danni’s friendship blossoms under their fake shared trauma as survivors, Danni uses her new friend’s social status to boost her own follower count, and man, this is where the second-hand embarrassment really reaches its breaking point.
What’s remarkable is that despite the film’s recognition of its main character’s repulsiveness, you still root for her in a strange, twisted sort of way. Even though it’s a practical guarantee that her lies will be exposed, you hold out belief that everything will be okay — much like Danni herself does. It watches like a combination of the fleeting optimism and anxiety of Uncut Gems and the obsessive delusion of Ingrid Goes West.
Unfortunately, the way Danni is built up (or put down, rather) as a character paints the narrative into a bit of a corner. The ending provides perhaps the most powerful scene in the whole film, but still doesn’t manage to give a particularly satisfying sense of closure in any case. That’s not to say it ruins the movie… just that the ending doesn’t feel like an earned conclusion for the audience. Other than that, my only quips regard a redundant use of ghost-like imagery and a few characters mostly present only to further the plot; that’s about it.
The idea of making a film criticizing social media and its side-effects is hardly a novel one. Not Okay manages to find a welcome niche within the abundance of similar media, though; it works as an impressively meticulous satire of influencer culture, online manipulation, and social toxicity. Despite some minor flaws which are easy to look past, Not Okay is a very well-made piece of satirical and frustrating cinema, bolstered by remarkable performances from Zoey Deutch and Mia Isaac.
Overall rating: 7/10