"Not Okay" incisive, darkly funny, poignant with a great Zoey Deutch performance

Not Okay (2022)

Everyone’s felt FOMO for not being in Lower Manhattan during 9/11, right? Oh, then it’s just the “unlikable female protagonist” at the center of “Not Okay,” a satirical, millennial-centric comedy. The film knowingly and sardonically warns us upfront about the kind of person we’re in for, along with “flashing lights” and “themes of trauma.” But when a movie prides itself on having an unlikable character to follow, it tends to lose its nerve and go soft by the end so he or she can be redeemed. “Not Okay” doesn’t quite do that, and it’s better for it. 

Our “unlikable female protagonist” is Danni Sanders, played by the vivacious Zoey Deutch with blonde streaks in her hair and gaudy acrylic nails. She’s a socially awkward photo editor at an online magazine, but Danni aspires to be a writer. (Her boss finds her latest pitch, a 9/11 FOMO piece, to be understandably offensive and tone-deaf.) Late at night in her Bushwick apartment, Danni gets the idea (or her pet guinea pig actually gives her the idea) to lie about being invited to a writers’ retreat in Paris. Taking selfies of her donning a red beret, photoshopping herself in front of Parisian landmarks, and posting them to the socials, she fabricates a whole trip. More Instagram followers start rolling in, including her co-worker crush, hot influencer Colin (Dylan O’Brien). It all starts off like a fun little lie, until…there’s a bombing attack at The Arc de Triomphe. 

“Returning” as a brave survivor, Danni gets what she wished for, being praised with sympathy and then trending — at least for a little while. Keeping up this façade and all of her lies, though, gets even more complicated. When Danni attends a support group for trauma survivors to see what actual trauma feels like, she meets 17-year-old Rowan (Mia Isaac), whose tragic story of surviving a school shooting has given her a platform as a gun-reform activist. Danni and Rowan become such good friends (and bond over Avril Lavigne) that Danni won’t be able to live with the guilt anymore — or someone will discover holes in her story. Either way, it’s not long before Danni Sanders is an online pariah “worse than Hitler.”

Having her finger on the pulse of this generation using social media and its desire to get noticed and feel important, writer-director Quinn Shephard (making her second feature after 2017’s provocative “Blame”) brings wit and playfulness to what essentially unfolds like a car accident in slow motion. As a scathing indictment of online fame that’s also sensitive when it needs to be, “Not Okay” recognizes that the Internet, while a productive tool, can be a toxic place that loves to shame, take someone down, and turn a victim into a villain. But what if that “victim” wasn’t actually a victim? Danni may not be a horrible human being to her core, but her massive lie and how far she takes it makes her look pathetic and attention-seeking in the extreme. Not unlike her misguided 9/11 pitch, Danni is utterly blind to the fact that she’s insulting those who did actually survive or did not survive the terrorist attacks in Paris. 

Zoey Deutch is an exceptional fraud, fearlessly committing to the flaws of Danni and not trying to make her likable. What Danni does is, of course, morally reprehensible, but maybe she’s not a soulless monster, either. Danni’s eventual guilt for her duplicity does begin to manifest itself when she hallucinates the hooded Paris bomber (or sees herself as the Paris bomber). We know Danni suffers from depression, and we do get a sense of her privileged life and the expectations set by her fair-weather mother, played by the usually warm Embeth Davidtz. Still, Quinn Shephard’s script never lets Danni off the hook without any consequences or tries excusing her behavior. Danni may locate her conscience in time and gain more self-awareness, but it’s all buried so far beneath the unadjusted priority to get the attention she craves. 

It’s no mistake to give Deutch a lot of the credit for making Danni feel like a layered human being, but newcomer Mia Isaac is an incredible find as the virtuous Rowan. Isaac is emotionally honest and warm, making Rowan the film’s heart and voice of reason if it has to have one. Dylan O’Brien is also hilarious as Colin, a performative poser with a social platform and a lot more swagger than brains. 

“Not Okay” functions as a satire of cancel culture, but it’s not that exaggerated or even implausible. We all want to see the good in everyone and believe survivors, right? Well, there is at least one person in the film, queer writer Harper (Nadia Alexander, who co-starred in the director’s debut) who begins questioning certain details in Danni’s story. An anti-hero story with proudly no traditional redemption arc, “Not Okay” is darkly funny, incisive, and surprisingly poignant. Upending crowd-pleasing clichés, it also has one of the year’s most impactful endings.

Grade: B +

Searchlight Pictures is releasing “Not Okay” (102 min.) on Hulu on July 29, 2022.