“Have you ever wanted to be noticed so badly, you didn’t even care what it was for?” The opening line of Quinn Shepard’s satire “Not Okay” perfectly sums up the central wannabe influencer’s journey and exemplifies an unfortunately common attitude among a young generation seeking internet fame. This voiceover accompanies Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch) on her laptop crying and scrolling through videos and tweets mocking and attacking her, some even threatening her life. It’s the type of social media backlash and shaming we’ve seen over and over again whenever a celebrity makes an ignorant comment or is exposed for wrongdoing. Danni Sanders has been canceled.
From here, the film jumps back in time to two months earlier when Danni is working as a photo editor at “Depravity,” a Buzzfeed-esque online magazine where she is desperate to be promoted to a writer. She is enamored by her coworker, Colin (Dylan O’Brien), an influencer who is introduced while emerging from a vape cloud. In an attempt to get Colin’s attention, Danni lies that she is spending the next week in Paris at a writers’ retreat. Upon realizing how expensive an actual trip to Paris is, Danni has the idea to continue her lie by photoshopping her entire vacation from her New York apartment.
This seems like mainly harmless fun until terrorist attacks strike landmarks all over Paris, including the Arc de Triomphe, the setting of Danni’s latest photoshopped selfie. Feeding off the attention and concerned messages Danni gets from Colin and the rest of her Instagram followers, Danni outrageously decides to continue the lie and pose as a survivor of the attacks. Danni is soon in way over head, befriending famous school shooting survivor and activist Rowan Aldren (Mia Isaac) and using her to create a viral trend called #IAmNotOkay. This propels Danni into the spotlight, allowing her to live out her influencer dreams, which, as we know from the film’s introduction, are not going to last for long.
Minutes into meeting Danni, it isn’t hard to believe she’d get canceled. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek content warning that cautions the audience of an “unlikeable female protagonist.” Danni fits the bill as an oblivious, insensitive, selfish and image-obsessed white woman, constantly on the hunt for validation. She laments about having FOMO for being out of town during 9/11 and speaks to her queer coworkers through “Yas, queen! Slay!”s. Deutch’s portrayal of a wannabe influencer with an internet-born personality is spot on given that her actions are both ridiculous and perfectly cringe-inducing. However, that is all the character really is: a surface-level exploration into why people are so obsessed with internet fame. We never get to know where Danni’s loneliness or desperation for approval originates. Her guilt about the lie is manifested through her getting visions of the bomber and images of herself actually at the Arc de Triomphe. These quick, thriller moments, reminiscent of “Black Swan,” which Danni cleverly has a poster of in her bedroom, are intriguing insights into Danni’s psyche which would have been interesting to see explored further.
Rising star Mia Isaac’s performance as Rowan is captivating and grounds the cringe-inducing comedy with actual grief and trauma, reminding the audience of the real damage of Danni’s lies. Sometimes, the gritty anger and passion of her trauma-inflicted character feels tonally out of place beside Danni’s comedic, two-dimensional protagonist. This may have been a purposeful effort to contrast the Instagram fantasy Danni lives in with harsh reality, but it does leave the film feeling slightly imbalanced.
Though far from perfect, this film is an engaging and humorous addition to the growing collection of social media satires, a subgenre that has been finding its footing over the last five years. Like films such as “Ingrid Goes West,” “Mainstream” and the upcoming “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” “Not Okay” grapples with the effect internet culture has had on our society and the way we feel about ourselves and others. “Not Okay” especially focuses on the intersection between social media and tragedies. Director and writer Quinn Shepard was inspired by waking up each morning and checking social media to find it mixed with news of violence and celebrity gossip. As Shepard told Indiewire, the point of the film is not to crucify social media or iPhones. She explained, “It’s more about how social media becomes an echo chamber for our societal issues, and I think Danni is a product of a lot of societal issues that are just magnified and [how] the wrong things are rewarded by the internet.”
“Not Okay” is available to stream on Hulu.
By Emily Ince