An ambitious young woman (Zoey Deutch) finds followers and fame when she poses as the survivor of a deadly attack, but she soon learns that online notoriety comes with a terrible price.
One of the year’s best films, Quinn Shephard’s “Not Okay” is a vital, timely work brimming with righteous indignation, giving voice to a segment of the population that’s often ignored, their concerns so much collateral damage in the pursuit of profit. The movie is also a blistering indictment of the narcissism of the Millennial Generation, as well as an examination of cultural appropriation and the fragmented nature of modern life. That the film doesn’t collapse under the weight of these subjects is a tribute to the director’s deft touch as well as the work of its two leads who deliver compelling, raw performances that keep us engaged throughout.
Danni Sanders (a perfect Zoey Deutch) is a clueless young woman longing for attention. Working as a photo editor at “Depravity,” a magazine she hopes to write for, she’s invisible to everyone, living the sort of solitary existence made possible by the illusionary connectivity of social media. In desperation, she proclaims she’s going to France for a writing retreat, a “trip” she documents from the comfort of her New York City apartment. Carefully altered pictures of her standing in front of Paris’ most famous landmarks help make this illusion seem real.
However, a deadly terrorist attack on the City of Light complicates matters. Danni decides to lean into this development, claiming to have witnessed this horrific event. Upon returning to the States, she’s shocked by the attention and sympathy she receives from her parents and co-workers. Sensing an advantage, she submits a story based on her “experiences” which is readily published. A phrase from it, “I’m Not Okay” becomes the basis for a hashtag movement prompting everyone to post their fears and anxieties on-line.
This becomes an international sensation and as a result, Danni gets the writing job she covets, snags an office in the process and even nabs the “It” boy of the moment, Colin (Dylan O’Brien). Working on a follow-up article, our anti-heroine attends a help group devoted to victims of violence, hoping to garner some authentic quotes she can use. Danni meets Rowan (Mia Isaac), a school shooting survivor and activist who’s become an outspoken advocate for gun safety reform. As she grows closer to a true victim, Danni’s dormant conscious awakens, and a moral crisis ensues.
Deutch pulls off an impressive highwire act, somehow not completely alienating the viewer despite fully embracing her character’s reprehensible narcissism. The actor’s natural charm keeps us from dismissing her completely while her talent makes the character’s transformation – from self-absorbed child to a woman of genuine empathy – convincing. It’s a remarkable turn as is that of Isaac, a young actor of uncommon strength, appearing in only her second feature film. Fierce, heartbreaking and strong, she dominates each scene she’s in, garnering the viewer’s sympathy with her passionate performance, never resorting to cheap, melodramatic tricks.
Riveting from start to finish, Shephard has no interest in delivering empty platitudes or pie-in-the-sky solutions to the issues she tackles. The filmmaker stands by the strength of her convictions to the end, giving none of her characters an easy out, eschewing a simplistic, viewer-friendly conclusion for one that poses questions that have no easy answers. She leaves us with a sense of uncertainty that’s unsettling but tragically honest. “Okay” is necessary viewing, an admirable piece of work that attempts to rouse our country’s youth from the lifestyle of self-absorption they’ve fallen victim to. This is a primal scream that demands to be heard, one that will hopefully find the audience it deserves.