'Not Okay' Gets Internet Schadenfreude Right
Zoey Deutch plays an influencer gone wrong in this smart film streaming on Hulu.
Not Okay, the new film starring Zoey Deutch on Hulu, has a somewhat similar plot to Dear Evan Hansen. In both, a young person suffering from anxiety and/or depression starts an elaborate lie that turns into an inspirational movement and has to live with the consequences when their fabrication becomes public knowledge. But when Dear Evan Hansen came out last year, audiences basically revolted. The odd combination of sociopathic behavior and uplifting power ballads made for a baffling experience. Why did Evan, who claimed to be the best friend of a kid who committed suicide and then started dating the dead's sister, get redeemed at the end?
Not Okay seems to recognize what Dear Evan Hansen could not: You can acknowledge your protagonist's own issues while still conveying that, in the end, she is still a piece of shit. Director and writer Quinn Shephard's movie is an enticingly cynical exercise, featuring a great performance from Zoey Deutch, as Danni Sanders, a millennial with neon rainbow claw nails and a color blocked dye job longing for some clout. The movie understands why we're obsessed with someone like Danni—someone who fucks up on such an extreme level and is so shameless about her desire to be quote-unquote cool and liked—but also doesn't let her off the hook for what are truly awful actions. It's not without empathy, but it's also fair, and one of the best depictions of an internet train wreck translated to screen.
When the film opens, Danni's a photo editor at a Vice-type website, where she's desperate to become a writer or on-camera talent like the dazed Colin (Dylan O'Brien), who wanders through the office in a haze of weed while cloaked in streetwear. When she runs into him near her Bushwick apartment, she lies to impress, telling him that she has been accepted to a writing seminar in Paris. Instead of living in her humiliation, she decides to further the ruse, setting up a fake website and photoshopping herself into Emily in Paris-type poses next to French landmarks. It seems to be working until there's a terrorist attack at the Arc de Triomphe, which happens minutes after Danni posts a fake picture of herself posing in front of it.
Yet again, she digs herself a deeper hole, becoming the face of the tragedy after staging a reunion with her cold Upper East Side family at the airport, and suggesting she blog about her experience to raise her profile at work. Looking for inspiration, she heads to a trauma support group where she meets Rowan (Mia Isaac), a teen activist who endured an actual horrific event: A school shooting at her high school. Rowan finds solace in a big sister stand-in who went through something similar, while Danni gets acceptance from someone who is genuinely impressive, unlike the influencers she once admired.
Unlike some writers trying to capture this millennial-Gen Z cusp angst of being online, Shephard seems to have actually spent time on the internet, and it comes through in her screenplay. And, while, sure, maybe Caroline Calloway didn't need to show up twice—the infamous Instagrammer has not one but two cameo appearances—Not Okay has a keen sense of minutiae of social media praise and cancellation. Shephard walks a tightrope and mostly pulls off the balance between over-the-top satire and honest depiction of the struggle someone like Rowan is going through and how someone like Danni—privileged, white, clueless—exacerbates that. For some viewers, Not Okay will still be too flip, but it does exactly what it sets out to do.
A lot of credit for its success goes to Deutch, who manages to make Danni a fully rounded human being without making any excuses for her. Deutch's character work has always been a strength even when the projects around her aren't great (see: Zombieland: Double Tap and The Politician) and here it truly gets to flourish. The actress relishes in playing Danni's absurdity, without forgetting her depression, her sadness, and her callousness.
The tension hanging over Not Okay is: Will Shephard let Danni off the hook? And I don't think it's really a spoiler to say that, no, it doesn't. Danni doesn't get forgiveness or a happy ending, she's relegated to an existence of shame, much like those who have actually been caught in heinous acts.
So why make a movie about a Danni Sanders anyway? Why not focus on someone like Rowan? Because Shephard understands that we will always be fascinated by people like Danni, always trying to figure out just how a Danni could justify her actions to herself. Is it delusion? Pain? Stupidity? Not Okay tries to find answers without finding sympathy, all the while enticing us with a character entrancing in her disastrousness.