“Did you ever want to be noticed so badly that you didn’t even care what it was for?“ Those opening words cut to the heart of “Not Okay”, the new social satire from 27-year-old writer-director Quinn Shephard. This is yet another feature-length roast of modern digital culture and internet celebrity. That isn’t a bad thing considering how much time we spend marinating in viral videos, clickbait, hashtags, the latest memes, and 280-character hot takes.
The problem is “Not Okay” spends too much time taking easy shots at the most obvious targets rather than exploring what drives the obsession for web-based celebrity and our insatiable appetites for instant notoriety. It gives lip service to symptoms such as self-loathing, insecurity, loneliness, and depression. But it never treats any of those things as causes worth examining. Instead the movie bops around with an admittedly entertaining energy. If only it had more weight.
A really good and thoroughly committed Zoey Deutch plays Danni Sanders, a photo editor and wannabe writer working for a New York-based magazine called Depravity (fitting). She’s no hero which the movie lets us know through a pretty hilarious opening content advisory that reads “This film contains flashing lights, themes of trauma, and an unlikable female protagonist.” As it turns out, “unlikable” is massive understantment. But thanks to Deutch’s charisma, unlikable never turns to insufferable.
Danni may say she wants to be writer, but her true dream is to be noticed. Danni craves attention and she sees writing as a way to gain notoriety rather than to say something of value. She’s the kind who always has her face glued to her smartphone and who measures worth by someone’s follower count. So it’s no surprise she doesn’t connect with the people she works with. She often clashes with her boss (a really funny Negin Farsad) and is frequently snubbed by the office cliques. The lone exception is her eccentric cubicle partner, Kelvin (a funny and underused Karan Soni) who she’s quick to brush off.
It also makes sense that she would have a crush on her co-worker and dedicated pothead Colin (Dylan O’Brien). He’s a big-time Instagram personality whose ludicrous persona, ever-present vape cloud, and “weedboiiicolin” online handle tell you all you need to know. Colin is basically an avatar for the shallowness of internet celebrity. He delivers some good early laughs before dwindling into nothing more than a punchline in the second half.
In a spur-of-the-moment attempt at impressing Colin, Danni gins up a story about attending a writer’s retreat in Paris. Rather than following the wisdom of that great sage Barney Fife and nipping it in the bud, Danni embraces the lie. She begins photoshopping pictures to make it look like she’s in the City of Lights and then posting them online. Before long she has created one big elaborate ruse, and all to earn the attention of a flake who can’t even remember her name.
But the scheme blows up in her face after a string of coordinated terrorist attacks strike Paris, targeting major landmarks across the city. It’s not the most sensitive or empathetic choice from Shephard considering the real-life deadly attacks the city has faced in recent history. Nonetheless the movie goes with it and soon Danni finds herself faced with a dilemma. Does she come clean and admit her lies or does she roll with the scam and bask in the attention it brings. She chooses the latter.
Morally oblivious and shockingly self-centered, Danni becomes in instant social media star, milking her faux survivor status for every follower she can get. She becomes the toast of her swanky but superficial workplace where she’s given her own office and unlimited “mental health days” which she abuses without shame. But her most detestable act involves a school shooting survivor turned fireball activist Rowan (Mia Isaac). I won’t spoil it, but the two develop a friendship built around Danni’s lie. And while Rowan offers Danni some much-needed perspective, she also exposes Danni’s most vile proclivities.
“Not Okay” is a hard movie to size up. In one sense it’s a gutsy film that goes to some unexpectedly icky places. Unfortunately it doesn’t go far enough. Danni is clearly a disgusting person (the movie even tells us so in case we missed it), but there’s still a nagging empathy for her that keeps the movie from going as far as it could have. And while Shephard’s messaging is sincere, she occasionally veers into preachiness that seems aimed solely at the choir, leaving the movie without the insight it desperately wants to have.
To its credit, “Not Okay” has some good things to say about influencer culture, our twisted fascination with tragedy, and the dehumanization of social media and web culture in general. And you can’t knock Deutch’s performance, especially her incredible management of energy and tone. But just as Danni tries incredibly hard to be noticed, so does the movie. And while she often comes across as tone-deaf, so are some of the story choices. It makes the film hard to fully embrace, despite the many things it does well. “Not Okay” is now streaming on Hulu.