Perhaps the writer-director of a film about a teacher having an affair with an unstable student (“Blame”) wasn’t the right choice for turning out a light-with-thoughtful-moments Zoey Deutch comedy about Internet fame-whoring and its consequences.
“Not Okay” wants to be kind of a goof on the subject. Deutch seems to want to make it one.
But former child actress turned writer-director Quinn Shephard doesn’t appear to be on the same page with this heavy-handed mope. Perhaps she changed her mind about her script at some point, but for some reason “Not Okay,” sunny and silly with consequences to come and guilt growing out of that, simply curdles in the third act, and doesn’t so much end as announce a verdict.
The often-effervescent Deutch, most recently seen in the gangland period piece “The Outfit,” but best known for lighter fare like “Set it Up,” “Buffaloed” and “The Disaster Artist,” plays Danni Sanders, a New Yorker with a photo editing job at the online mag “Depravity.”
Danni narrates about how she badly she wants “to be noticed, to be seen.” But her attempts at writing for the mag are narcissistic “Zillenial” takes on “missing 9/11,” being stuck in “J-train Bushwick” and the like. No, Danni, “tone deaf” can’t “be a brand,” even if it is “what Lena Dunham does.”
Shunned by everyone at the office, invisible to the popular stoner/vaper influencer Colin (Dylan O’Brien) she inexplicably crushes on, and too self-absorbed to remember her office-mate Kelvin’s (Karan Soni) name, Danni craves a place at the table with the cool kids, to be invited to “gay bowling,” to be “important.”
Colin’s kind offer of a few hits off his new 7-ended blunt, or if you prefer, “joint,” gets Danni buzzed enough that her online envy of influencers and colleagues going off to exotic places turns into “I could fake that.” A few poses in a beret, a lot of help from Photoshop or its equivalent, an invented (with website) “writer’s retreat” in Paris and an abrupt vacation demand from work, and she’s off.
Danni is living the same “best life” as the most seasoned online humbraggers, taking in the sights, looking cute in her travel togs, all from the comfort of…Bushwick.
Damned if she doesn’t wake up the next AM to a flood of concerned posts and messages — from friends, new “followers” and her parents. Paris has experienced a string of citywide terror attacks. And checking in as “safe” isn’t going to cover her fake Paris trip tracks.
“Not Okay” is at its sunniest with Danni inventing the trip, and then scrambling to cover it — taking luggage and her beret to the airport so her Mom (Embeth Davidtz) can be relieved to have her home, and her Dad (Brennan Brown) can break down in tears as he embraces her.
That’s the photo, taken by a newspaper journalist, that starts Danni down the path to fame. From there, seeing as how little anyone questions her authenticity or the veracity of her experience, she starts writing about “what I saw” and becomes a media sensation, “blowing up Instagram, speaking of bombings.”
But if she wants to write convincing accounts of trauma and PTSD, she’ll need to do her research. That’s how she finds herself in a survivor’s self-help group. It’s not the 40something guy who was at the Manchester Ariana Grande concert-bombing she latches onto. It’s the young school shooting survivor Rowan (Mia Isaac, terrific), a kid who became an activist and got Internet famous for it, who takes her in.
It’s probably no coincidence that “Not Okay,” which takes its title from an expression Danni steals from Rowan, loses its way when the hoaxer starts appropriating experience and behavior from the shooting survivor. That’s not okay.
We watch as Rowan kind of flinches and then smiles and agrees to every little suggestion Danni makes that allows her to cadge a little bit more of her fame, experience and audience. It’s cruel and callous, and Deutch can’t make what the script does with this plot twist funny.
Danni’s guilt is personified in her seeing the “person of interest” in Paris bombings, an unknown man in a face-hiding hoodie, in her nightmares, in public spaces and any time she does something that wrongs poor Rowan.
As the picture takes its turn towards Danni getting everything she wanted and slowly start to second guess her goals and eventually her unethical methods, “Not Okay” gropes around for a resolution that will challenge, inform and maybe entertain. And it fails.
Shephard has picked a topic for her film that stays case-specific when she wants and needs it to expand into a larger statement. Yes, there’s appropriation, yes the web “turns victims into villains” at the drop of a hat, and yes, every Jussie Smollett who claims victimhood for some wrong that never happened erodes confidence in what the hive mind can accept as fact.
Is that a raging societal problem, or is Shephard getting on us for our rush to lionize, or condemn?
Danni as a creation is little more than a cliche of a stereotype, as is the one woman in the office to instinctively mistrust her. That’s always the gay in the screenplay, isn’t it?
When our anti-heroine skips past the truly righteous folks who have responded to her “I’m not okay” column with their own struggles to ask “Did you see Kendall Jenner’s post? I had no IDEA she’d experienced so much discrimination,” it’s not much of a laugh. But that’s your movie, right there, and the lesson to be taught.
The generation grasping for fame on the Internet learns compassion and finally figures out the difference between authentic people and real suffering, and everybody who just strikes that pose for “woke points,” likes and followers. That’s make an OK comedy, or even a dramedy, and almost certainly a better film than this.
Rating: R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual content
Cast: Zoey Deutch, Mia Isaac, Dylan O’Brien, Embeth Davidtz, Nadia Alexander and Karan Soni.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Quinn Shephard. A Searchlight release on Hulu.
Running time: 1:40