For any lover of dark comedy, Not Okay may easily work its way up to being their favorite film of the year. The satirical nature of writer/director Quinn Shephard’s script makes some of the most effective and raw moments palatable and memorable. By bringing up so many moral questions right off the bat, Shephard trusts the audience to form their own opinion over its controversial central figure, Danni Sanders. Zoey Deutch and Mia Isaac forge an unforgettable bond over the course of the twisty runtime—their relationship is the heart, attempting to fuel a sort of excuse for Danni’s often reprehensible behavior.
Split up into nine chapters, Not Okay pulls the classic trend of starting us near the end before flashing all the way back to the beginning. Danni Sanders (Deutch, Set It Up, The Politician) is the most-hated person in the world, sobbing over her laptop as her reputation crumbles down before her in cancellation. What drove her to this point? What does it mean to “want to be noticed so badly, you don’t even care what it’s for?” Anyone will be able to relate to this concept, particularly those who have felt like outsiders. Danni warns to be careful what one wishes for, then the clock rolls back a mere two months earlier. Establishing Danni’s problematic character from the jump, Quinn Shephard orchestrates a harrowing story with Zoey Deutch at the center.
Danni works as a photo editor whose deadlines are consistently missed—is the problem that she’s shifting to focus on an article pitch about “being sad” that includes September 11th F.O.M.O.? Whatever the case, Danni’s work at “DEPRAVITY” does not appear fulfilling in any way. Her boss isn’t buying into Danni’s cries to be recognized, two colleagues expressly tell Danni she’s not invited to their LGBT-only queer bowling day, and her hot vaping coworker, Colin (Dylan O’Brien, The Maze Runner, Teen Wolf), with thousands of followers will barely glance her way. To say she is stuck in a rut would be putting it mildly—Danni’s idea of a typical night is to hang out with her pet guinea pig, Ginny Weasley, then drink alone in her apartment until she blacks out. Desperately trying to fit in with others, Danni cannot seem to find a community that accepts her as an individual, nor one that is willing to tolerate her long enough to break through her anxious exterior.
When Danni runs into Colin in Bushwick as he is smoking a wax-laced scorpion joint, he doesn’t remember her name, and assumes she must be a fan. Danni gets high with Colin and, in a last-ditch effort to impress him, casually drops that she is going to Paris for a writer’s retreat. This sets the stage for “The Lie” that will change Danni’s life forever. With a $2,000 round trip flight to Paris fully out of the question, Danni instead elects to lie about the entirety of the trip, taking off from work and photoshopping countless pictures for her social media. Pretending to live her wildest Emily in Paris fantasies all from the comfort of her home, Danni is soon followed on socials by Colin—a momentous occasion! One night before bed, Danni figures out the timeframe in Paris, then posts a cute photoshopped selfie and heads to bed.
The very next morning, Danni awakens to a cavalcade of people reaching out with worried prayers, including her own parents. A horrible terrorist attack has happened in Paris, only minutes after Danni’s last post! Briefly, Danni debates coming clean about pretending to be in Paris, but instead decides to fake getting off the first plane back. With her parents super concerned, people seem to actually like Danni now. At work, she returns to rapturous applause, and everyone calling her “brave.” To write an article about her experiences, Danni swoops in on a survivor’s support group recommended by her mother. At the conclusion of her first attended meeting, Danni is about to move on with all the necessary fuel to pad out her article when she overhears a man who survived an Ariana Grande concert asking to take a picture with a celebrity guest. Ever the social climber, Danni introduces herself to Rowan (Mia Isaac, Don’t Make Me Go), a teen gun safety activist and shooting survivor, and just like that, a new friendship is born.
As Not Okay builds up the platonic relationship between Danni and Rowan, the moral grey area seems to ask the viewer if they approve of Danni’s actions. Her rise to fame continues to climb after Rowan takes her to a rage room, and Rowan delivers sage advice that will come to define a brand-new movement: “if you’re not okay, that’s okay.” Danni uses Rowan’s words to blend together an article about surviving trauma, using pain as one’s greatest asset, and sharing unspoken truths. This opens the door to things Danni has wanted her entire life—Colin gives her the attention she craves, vowing to protect his “damaged little girl,” Danni’s mom and dad seem at her beck and call, and at work, a promotion means her very own office!
To no one’s surprise, this ignites like wildfire all across social media. Danni reaches a level of fame she could have never envisioned, and she actually begins to channel her faux experiences into speeches and actions for the greater good. But does the good justify the awfulness of her pretense in the first place? A suspect of the Paris attacks, a faceless stranger in baggy clothes, haunts Danni’s every action and invades her darkest nightmares. With the audience fully aware that Danni will eventually have a fall from grace, I was still invested her story. Particularly as it begins to outgrow Danni and dive into the trauma of other survivors, Not Okay is a surprisingly heavy watch.
Not Okay culminates in a memorably touching spoken-word performance for the Act Up talent show, one Rowan has been preparing for throughout. I kept waiting for this film to drop the ball, or for its messaging to become puzzling or muddled. However, it is quite clear Quinn Shephard has a concise vision that is brilliantly executed. Whether one ultimately relates with Danni and feels for her plight, her mistakes are obviously awful in the same breath. Victim blaming and online shaming are in Shephard’s crosshairs as well, and are handled with the exact right touches of nuance. The film’s final scene is one that casts a heavy cloud, yet fits like a glove. Get ready to smash away the numbness—Not Okay is an absolute gift that demolishes our social media-obsessed culture, and celebrates believing the truths of real survivors.
Not Okay hopes to go viral with a trendy new hashtag when it debuts exclusively to Hulu on Friday, July 29th, from Searchlight Pictures.