Mid-way through Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne’s warm-hearted feature directorial debut “Am I OK?,” stars Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno, playing long-time BFFs in the middle of a crisis, take part in the kind of knockdown, drag-out argument that only people who really love each other could have. The expletives fly fast, the needling remarks about sensitive subjects come quick, and absolutely no one leaves the fight happy. It’s the sort of experience anyone who has a best friend is likely familiar with, though the details of how and why Lucy (Johnson) and Jane (Mizuno) are arguing are very specific, the result is immediately recognizable, understandable, and heartbreaking.
“Am I OK?” might be the only comedy at this year’s Sundance Film Festival about a pair of pals upended — sort of — by the admission that one of them is gay, but it’s also a generous examination of female friendship, a dead funny skewering of L.A. culture, and a refreshing new spin on the sex comedy to boot. It’s got something for everyone, a crowd-pleaser with the kind of plotline that might scare of a handful of audience members (too bad for them, really). Aided by Johnson’s very charming comedic turn and Mizuno gamely taking on a prickly role (plus Notaro as, and this would be hard to make up, the doyenne of a retreat dedicated to a hammock-based lifestyle), “Am I OK?” joins a growing body of female-focused friendship films (“Bridesmaids,” “For a Good Time, Call…,” “Girls Trip,” just to name some recent standouts) without backing down from its interest in exploring sexuality, pleasure, and identity.
Lucy and Jane know each other very well, perhaps even too well — our first introduction to them, after a snappy series of opening credits that feature pix of other BFFs at play, is watching them order for each other at their local coffee shop — but there are still secrets between them. Mostly, as Lauren Pomerantz’s wily screenplay examines, those secrets are the kind they are even keeping from themselves, like how Jane really feels about being yanked away from her hometown (London) when she was just a kid or what really might be behind her boyfriend’s (Jermaine Fowler) reticence to propose. Or, something even bigger on the Lucy front, who is realizing far too late into her sexual development — at least by her approximation — that she might actually dig girls.
When Jane gets a chance to move back to London for a sweet gig, the fragile balance of Lucy and Jane’s lives is thrown into disarray. Suddenly, Jane has a reason to spend more time with co-worker Kat (a delightfully unhinged Molly Gordon), Lucy has less access to her BFF to tell her about the nice gal (an alluring Kiersey Clemons) at her job, and nothing feels quite right. Plenty is still, thankfully, quite funny, like the “rap battle” yoga class the pair attend (again, L.A. culture) and Sean Hayes as Jane’s demented boss, who is delighted by his ability to gauge that Jane, with her British accent is, in fact, British. Snappy editing from Kayla Emter and Glen Scantlebury hype up the humor, with quick cuts adding pizzazz to already amusing situations.
But there is a serious center here, and while Lucy’s journey — coming to terms with one’s sexuality beyond the usual coming-of-age story is not something we normally see onscreen, particularly with such comedic trappings — is a tough one, Johnson keeps Lucy grounded, relatable, and someone you can’t help but cheer for. Jane, barely bothered by Lucy’s revelation, is her biggest cheerleader, believing that Lucy will become “the star” of the lesbian community, and making it her mission to get Lucy some serious sexual experience before Jane has to move across the pond. But even that level of support isn’t enough to get Lucy through everything, and while “Am I OK?” sweetly champions the power of strong female friendships, it also understand something essential: If you don’t like yourself, having a BFF who adores you is really only half the battle.
While an occasional bent to present “Am I OK?” through the beats of a romance — something “For a Good Time, Call” did exceptionally well — doesn’t always work and the film struggles a bit to charge ahead through that big-time bust-up between Lucy and Jane, it finds its footing again when focusing more closely on the specifics of Lucy’s journey into, well, womanhood (or, at least, a different kind than she’s been used to). Johnson is aces at this open-hearted comedy stuff, just as appealing when she’s falling off a bed to literally avoid a man as she is repeatedly sobbing over the state of her life (Dakota Johnson: wonderful onscreen crier). Where this all takes Lucy and Jane might feel a bit predictable, but that doesn’t deter from the warmth and wit that comes from the story that gets them there, a sex comedy with major heart, a friendship drama with plenty of spice, and a lovely new calling card for both Notaro and Allynne.
“Am I OK?” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.