Main Character Energy Transforms a Villain Into a Victim in the Scathing Online Satire 'Not Okay' | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Main Character Energy Transforms a Villain Into a Victim in the Scathing Online Satire 'Not Okay'

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Published August 10, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Deutch plays the epitome of everyone you hate online in Shephard's on-target but dispiriting satire. - COURTESY OF SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
  • Courtesy Of Searchlight Pictures
  • Deutch plays the epitome of everyone you hate online in Shephard's on-target but dispiriting satire.

After its standard parental advisory, the Hulu original film Not Okay offers a further caution: "This film contains flashing lights, themes of trauma, and an unlikable female protagonist. Viewer discretion advised."

"Wait, what?" viewers may ask. Since when does the public need to be warned that a fictional character isn't a role model? Are we going to start seeing similar solemn warnings on works featuring despicable male protagonists?

The second warning turns out to be a meta-commentary from the movie's writer-director, 27-year-old Quinn Shephard. In test screenings, she told Shondaland, many viewers of Not Okay were appalled by the film's protagonist, asking, "Why would you make a movie with a woman like this at the center?" She added the warning for their sake, but also as a wry joke about the double standard.

So what's so upsetting about pretty, perky protagonist Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch)?

The deal

Danni has one goal in life: to be seen. She pitches a first-person piece called "Why Am I So Sad?" to the hip media outlet where she works, offering to explore such sources of grief as having missed out on the trauma of 9/11 because she was on a cruise at the time. When her boss says the complaint might seem "tone deaf," Danni earnestly suggests that tone deaf is her "brand."

Undeterred by her editor's rejection, Danni sets out to capture the attention of a cooler-than-thou coworker (Dylan O'Brien) by using Photoshop to send herself on a fake trip to Paris. Moments after she posts a photo of herself supposedly at the Arc de Triomphe, a terrorist's bomb explodes at the real landmark.

Suddenly Danni is the most visible survivor of a public trauma — or so it seems. Piling deceit on deceit, she uses her newfound fame to forge a profitable friendship with Rowan (Mia Isaac), a high-profile teen activist and school shooting survivor. Soon Danni will attain the massive virality she's always desired — and face the consequences of basing it all on a lie.

Will you like it?

As played by the charismatic Deutch, Danni has a big smile and nervous, eager-to-please eyes. Beneath her meek façade, though, she's basically every terrible person online — every runner of fraudulent GoFundMe campaigns, every cloying influencer, every aggressively performative poseur.

Sure, our heroine has moments of humanity. She develops some semblance of a rapport with Rowan — who, as sensitively played by Isaac, has the shadings of a real person rather than a satirical caricature. When Danni attends a support group for trauma survivors and describes her world as gray, Deutch briefly makes us feel for her. No doubt about it, this woman has an inner void. But if anything can fill her emptiness better than likes and shares do, we don't hear about it.

Not Okay has the structure of a rom-com: A madcap heroine weaves a web of lies that eventually puts all of her relationships in jeopardy. But, because Danni has so little substance, there's nowhere for her to go beyond carefully staged contrition.

Shephard told Shondaland that Danni's character evolved from an exercise in which she did "therapy through writing," asking herself, "What if I indulged the worst possible qualities in myself?" While that's a fruitful way to develop a character, it could explain why Danni irks viewers. The problem isn't that she's "unlikable" or unrelatable (she's actually too relatable) but that there's almost nothing to her beyond the generic vision of a "Zillennial" (as she puts it) upper-crust white woman. Never has someone so thoroughly embodied the slang term "basic bitch."

The filmmaker has an unfailing grasp of all the mendacious and pathetic things that people will do for online attention. But the movie falters when Shephard tries to take the next step and indict the whole society that builds up Danni, using her supposed trauma as currency, and then tears her down when her picture-perfect anguish turns out (surprise!) to be a con.

In the attention economy, misery gets clicks and pain is an asset, as Rowan acknowledges to Danni. Not Okay is razor-sharp when it delineates the absurdity of that transaction. But the movie is also frustrating because we want to see at least a hint that Danni can evolve or change. The most she offers are misty eyes that suggest she may finally have found something that makes her sad for real.

If you like this, try...

Ingrid Goes West (2017; Showtime, rentable): "Unlikable female protagonists" are nothing new in the tiny subgenre of social media satire. Not Okay has many elements in common with this dark comedy in which Aubrey Plaza plays a loner who stalks her favorite influencer.

"Black Mirror" episode 3.1: "Nosedive" (2016; Netflix): Bryce Dallas Howard set the blueprint for all these characters — young, female, dangerously obsessed with looking good online — in this episode of the speculative anthology series about the dark side of the internet.

"I May Destroy You" (2020, one season; HBO Max): Not Okay acknowledges the role of white privilege in Danni's ascendance; Rowan, who is Black, rightly points out that someone like Danni is far more likely to "get a show on Netflix or Hulu" than someone like her. But there is a show that explores social media obsession from the perspective of a young Black woman, with mordant wit. Check out Michaela Coel's brilliant series.