“CONTENT WARNING: This film contains flashing lights, themes of trauma, and an unlikable female protagonist.”
That’s the opening salvo for Quinn Shephard’s “Not Okay,” a razor-sharp, painfully funny (and, sometimes, just plain painful) social satire about the ills of internet notoriety. It’s a canny opening for the “Blame” filmmaker’s whipsmart sophomore outing, winking at the familiar concerns (content warnings, trauma) of the generation she chronicles while, nodding at the woman at its heart (hey, it’s an “unlikable” female lead!) and hinting at growth within (she is, after all, a protagonist, not an antagonist). Being perpetually online sucks, but movies about it don’t have to, as “Not Okay” shows time and again.
Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch) wants to be noticed, so badly, but while she lives in an age that makes it hard to hide, she’s still woefully ill-equipped for what that really means. And, as the film’s in media res opening makes clear, Danni has already a) taken her shot and b) flamed out in spectacular fashion. Sobbing, alone, and mortified, we meet Danni as she’s paging through reams of tweets and videos and news articles that declare her a social-media monster, the worst of the worst, and very canceled indeed.
How did we get here?
Shephard (who also wrote the script) zips us back two months earlier, when Danni was just a lowly photo editor at Depravity (think height-of-its-powers BuzzFeed with a name that makes for a banger of a logo). Danni desperately wants to fit in, to be included, to be cool, but her eagerness trumps every other part of her personality. When she tells her boss that she has “FOMO for 9/11,” she doesn’t bat an eyelash. Her co-workers (including Shephard’s “Blame” star Nadia Alexander) smell the desperation wafting off her, and even Danni’s own “#girlboss” mom (Embeth Davidtz) doesn’t have time for her.
Deutch, one of our most — yes, yes, sorry — likable rising stars has long displayed a real knack for playing complicated, even awful young women in projects like “Flower,” “Buffaloed,” and “The Politician,” but “Not Okay” is her piece de resistance. This film only works if Danni is both loathsome and relatable — Deutch delivers precisely that. Hellbent on fitting in and proving her worth (and, OK, also being somewhat high at the time), Danni makes up a big lie: She’s going to a writer’s retreat in Paris and will document the whole thing on social media. It gets her co-worker crush Colin (a bleached-blond Dylan O’Brien, serving up a raucous mashup of Machine Gun Kelly and Seth Green’s iconic “Can’t Hardly Wait” character Kenny Fisher) to follow her back on the ‘gram, so really, what could be so wrong about it?
Juiced up on her own photography skills and encouraged by her wide-eyed pet guinea pig (“Guinea Weasley”), Danni sets about faking her French adventure while bumping around Brooklyn (shot on location and looks it, refreshing for a film about the ability to manipulate any and all images). And then real life interferes: As Danni sleeps, Paris is the subject of a terrorist attack that shakes the world. Now she’s got the internet fame she’s dreamed of, for all the wrong reasons. She responds by doing the only thing she knows: Lying, and lying some more, turning the world’s desire to commodify tragedy into a way to commodify herself.
The world, of course, is happy to eat it all up, but even Danni can’t escape the weight of what she’s done. Beset by scary visions and creepy nightmares and in need of fresh material, she gate-crashes a support group for trauma survivors. Here, “Not Okay” turns away from its early humor and becomes something much more biting. She meets Rowan (Mia Isaac), a school-shooting survivor who’s both genuinely inspiring and actually traumatized, and who is using her platform for good. Shephard’s sharp send-up of internet culture was already snappy, but once it starts building real stakes, “Not Okay” only gets better.
It also gets more complicated. Danni is shocked to discover the most basic of truisms: She’s not just tweeting and ‘gramming and talking shit into the void. The attention she seeks comes from real people reading her posts, actual humans who empathize with her story while living their own dramas and traumas. What a thing to have to be told, what a thing to have to learn.
As Danni’s stature grows, bumped up by a viral Depravity article in which she admits she’s “not okay” (absolutely true, but surely not in the ways she means, or the ways other people see it), the lies get bigger and harder to cover. We know she’ll be found out, but what’s most intriguing about “Not Okay” is how Shephard and Deutch navigate what that inevitability looks like.
Shephard’s first film was festival favorite “Blame,” which she made when she was just 20. Inspired by “The Crucible,” it provided a modern window into classic shaming and explored heavy themes with a smart and often funny touch. Shephard isn’t afraid to ask thorny questions about “unlikable” people and the societies that both adore and reject them. That’s not a world with easy answers and Shephard doesn’t offer any, but she has something better: movies that make you laugh, make you think, and make you — just maybe — reflect on where you fit into them.
“Not Okay” starts streaming on Hulu on Friday, July 29.