Brace yourself. We’re on the verge of being bombarded with higher-profile feature films about the perils of being a 20-something, raised on social media, with a skewed/warped definition of what it means to be popular and influential. Some may say these movies are already upon us, and I’ve certainly seen a handful of them on the festival circuit or streaming services. But now, these films are reaching theaters or bigger streamers, and they feature characters that we aren’t necessarily meant to like. Case in point: Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch), whom we are told up front is on the verge of becoming the most hated woman on the internet for very real and unforgivable reasons.
So why should we care about Danni if she’s so deplorable? Because in many ways, Danni represents many young people today, with ideas about becoming popular on social media without really giving anything back to the world at large to earn such fame. She’d rather be famous for being famous than contribute anything meaningful to society. Danni is a struggling writer, working at an online magazine, about to be fired by her boss (Negin Farsad) and hoping to get a far more popular co-worker, Colin (Dylan O’Brien), to like her, both because him liking her will increase her profile and because his vapidity is the only one in her universe that rivals hers. Danni’s parents, especially her mother (Embeth Davidtz), are concerned for her but are too worried about being overbearing, so they avoid the details of their daughter’s life.
Danni sets up an Instagram-friendly fake trip to Paris using stock photos as backdrops and costumes to make it appear that she’s vacationing in the City of Light, when in fact she never leaves her room. But real life intervenes when a bombing takes place in front of the Arc de Triomphe seconds after she posts images of herself there, leaving everyone who follows her to believe she was at the center of the action and may have even seen the bomber just moments before he detonated the bomb. Through no design of her own, Danni becomes the American poster child for survivors of the bombing and the trauma they experienced as a result. At first she tries to resist, but the appeal of the spotlight is too much for her, and she’s drawn into a life of popularity and hero worship that is beyond her imagination. The experience even puts her in the same orbit as school-shooting survivor Rowan (Mia Isaac, Don’t Make Me Go), and the two become friends and even work on ideas for political action groups and speeches together.
Not Okay is the second feature from actor-turned-director Quinn Shephard (Blame) and it has some fairly keen observations about how the internet builds up and takes down its most popular creations. Since we know how this beast will end, the journey’s appeal is watching Danni slowly let her guilt get the best of her. As this happens, she genuinely tries to become a voice that helps others, but she does so in the most misguided manner possible, and the world simply blows up in her face before she can confess her lies. In fact, a co-worker named Harper (Nadia Alexander) busts her and threatens to expose her unless she comes clean.
Danni cannot begin to build herself up as a better person without having every aspect of her present lifestyle destroyed, and however much we can’t stand her at various points in the story, her takedown is so swift and brutal, you almost feel bad for her…almost. Deutch is so strong and convincing in this role that it’s far too easy to look forward to and applaud her takedown. Some viewers may watch this film and not enjoy spending time with a single character, and that is a perfectly valid response—we’re given equal opportunity to hate everyone in this movie, with perhaps the exception of Rowan.
At a turning point in the movie, Danni writes an explosive personal essay called “I Am Not Okay,” and it triggers a movement that seemingly gets the world unified for a brief shining moment. Such things don’t actually happen in the world we live in, and maybe that’s too bad, because the article seems to allow people to shout out from the rafters that they don’t have their lives together, and that’s going to have to be cool for a while. It’s one of the important messages of Not Okay, and it comes from the keyboard of a fraud trying to be better than herself. We don’t have to be friends with the characters of a movie we admire, and that feels like the point of this flawed but admirable work.
The film is now streaming on Hulu.
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