Not Okay tells you exactly what kind of a film it is before it even begins. The new film from writer-director Quinn Shephard, which charts one vapid influencer’s rise to fame and subsequent social media cancellation, opens with an explicit warning that it contains, among other things, “an unlikable female protagonist.” It’s a message that comes across not only as a winking nod to the ways in which a term such as “likable” has been weaponized against women over the years but also a vow that Not Okay isn’t going to play it safe.
That’s a promise that Shephard doesn’t fully follow through on. The film’s “unlikable” protagonist, Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch), is narcissistic and coldly opportunistic in all the ways that one expects an ambitious social media influencer to be, and Shephard spends much of Not Okay’s first act establishing Danni’s obsessive desire to be noticed. When her boss (played by Negin Farsad), an editor at a culture website named “Depravity,” scolds Danni for writing in one piece that she believes she lost out on an integral generational bonding moment by missing 9/11, Not Okay makes it explicitly clear what kind of protagonist we’re dealing with.
But before Not Okay gets to that, it follows up its attention-grabbing opening message with a montage that throws viewers right into the deep end of the viral hate campaign that eventually turns Danni’s life upside down. The montage follows Danni as she sobs while obsessively consuming all the various tweets, articles, and YouTube videos that have been made by those who are so anxious to paint her as the world’s worst person. Whether it’s meant to or not, the sequence creates an immediate empathy for Danni and, even more importantly, clues you into the loneliness that is at the heart of all of her attempts to gain viral fame.
In other words, the montage immediately undercuts Not Okay’s initial warning. As much as the film may want you to believe she is, Danni Sanders is no Amy Dunne from Gone Girl, but Not Okay would have been better off if she was.
After establishing Danni as a middling photo editor who is desperate to both become the internet’s new favorite influencer and earn the romantic favor of Colin (Dylan O’Brien), a popular marijuana blogger, Not Okay follows Danni as she fabricates a story about getting invited to a writer’s retreat in Paris. In order to sell her lie, Danni photoshops selfies of herself in the City of Light and writes Instagram captions detailing her fake adventures abroad. While it initially works, Danni’s story is nearly torn to shreds when a terrorist attack takes place in Paris at the same time as her fake vacation.
Rather than admit to her fairly harmless falsehood, Danni doubles down on her story. In response, she earns the very sympathy, doting attention, and online fame she’s long wanted. While Not Okay’s opening montage makes it clear that Danni’s ruse is destined to crumble as well, the film still spends most of its runtime following her as she becomes a viral star, hooks up with O’Brien’s Colin, and — most horrifyingly of all — befriends Rowan (Mia Isaac), a school shooting survivor turned activist, in the hope of learning how to sell her manufactured trauma as the real deal.
Along the way, Danni finds herself haunted by visions of herself in Paris on the day of the very terrorist attack she claims to have survived, and the closer she grows to Isaac’s Rowan the more guilty she feels about the lies she’s told. But while Shephard wisely avoids giving Danni a redemption arc, the filmmaker fails to say anything of real merit or value in Not Okay. As a treatise on the poisonous power of fame, Not Okay is a serviceable but predictable morality tale. In certain fleeting moments, the film also toys with some genuinely compelling ideas about the modern desire to co-opt another person’s trauma.
However, none of these ideas come together or amount to much. What’s worse is that Not Okay treats its purportedly “unlikable female protagonist” far too kindly to be the kind of savage satire that it and its gratingly-winking title cards (two particularly egregious examples include “I’m a good person now!” and “I don’t get a redemption arc.”) claims to be. In the end, the film feels less like a brutal takedown of the social media generation and more like a toothless study of certain shallow internet personalities.
Consequently, for anyone out there who remains endlessly fascinated by fallen internet influencers like Caroline Calloway, Not Okay may very well be just the film for them. For everyone else, it will be just yet another hollow exploration of the internet age — one that’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.
Not Okay debuts Friday, July 29 on Hulu.
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