In the same week we get B.J. Novak’s “Vengeance,” which is about a narcissistic New York writer obsessed with making a social media impact no matter what the collateral damage, we see the release of Quinn Shephard’s “Not Okay,” which is about a narcissistic New York photo editor who wants to be a writer and is obsessed with becoming a social media influencer no matter what the collateral damage.
Both films feature strong performances, and both writer-directors no doubt have many fine works ahead of them. But I was just a little less taken with “Not Okay,” mostly due to the lack of growth in the lead character and a few too many logic-defying developments.
The wonderful Zoey Deutch, who always lights up the screen, plays Danni Sanders, who works at a cutting-edge zeitgeist website called Depravity, where she keeps pitching tone-deaf articles with titles such as “Why Am I So Sad?,” in which she talks of FOMO over the generational trauma of 9/11 because she was on vacation with her family. (Spoiler alert: Her editor rejects the piece.)
Searchlight Pictures presents a film written and directed by Quinn Shephard. Rated R (for language throughout, drug use and sexual content). Running time: 100 minutes. Now available on Hulu.
Danni flounces about the offices wearing her desperation on her sleeve, whether she’s trying (and failing) to win an invitation to Queer Bowling Night with her LGBTQ colleagues or mooning over the perpetually high and dimwitted Colin (Dylan O’Brien), who has managed to become something of an Internet celebrity. (The production design really pops, whether it’s the open-air workspace at Depravity or Danni’s tiny Bushwick apartment that she shares with her pet guinea pig.)
When Danni bumps into Colin on the street, she has to remind him they’re co-workers, and he’s more interested in his phone than Danni until she blurts out that she’s been selected to attend an elite writers’ retreat in Paris, and he tells her to post some pics, which sends her into spasms of joy. Maybe Colin will follow her on Insta, OMG!
Of course, there is no writers’ retreat, and Danni can’t afford to go to Paris. So she gets her Photoshop on and starts posting pics about her non-trip, donning a red beret, posing in front of the Eiffel Tower and writing such inanities as, “Starting my morning right. Now, where’s my baguette?” Her phony trip is so shallow and so uncurious, she makes Emily in Paris come across as Margaret Mead.
Still, the ruse starts to take, with Colin among Danni’s many new followers — but then Paris is hit by a series of terrorist attacks. Instead of admitting she was never there in the first place, Danni dashes to the airport wearing her red beret and toting her suitcase, blends in with survivors returning home and becomes an instant celebrity, appearing on talk shows, getting a standing ovation at work for being so strong, writing a piece of Depravity about her experiences and seeing doors open for her all over New York. (“Oh, my God,” says one gatekeeper at a glitzy party, “you’re the girl from the Paris attacks!”)
To lend authenticity to this mounting and utterly horrific lie, Danni joins a support group of survivors, where she has little patience for the stories of the nondescript members of the group but gloms onto Rowen (Mia Isaac, doing strong and empathetic work), a teenager who has become famous for her powerful and inspirational advocacy work after surviving a school shooting. Guarded at first, Rowen bonds with Danni over their putatively shared experiences.
Deutch is such a talented actor that we can see flickers of possible regret in Danni’s eyes. But, when Rowen warns that some people like to turn victims into villains, Danni shrugs it off. That’s not happening with her. She’s become a star at Depravity, she has Colin’s attentions, and everybody loves her!
It’s only a matter of time before Danni is found out. Her con was transparently thin even BEFORE the terrorist attacks. After all, she couldn’t post a single pic from the writers’ retreat because there was no writers’ retreat. Once she’s back, she talks about touring Notre-Dame de Paris, as she’s apparently one of the few people in the waking world who is unaware of the massive 2019 fire at the cathedral and ongoing renovation efforts.
We know Danni will be exposed, but the manner in which it happens, and her subsequent ways of dealing with it, leave something to be desired in terms of story and character arc, and we’ll say no more about that.
Quinn Shephard is a blazing talent who made a spectacular filmmaking debut at 23 as the writer-director-star and editor of the provocative 2017 feature “Blame,” and she has the kind of skill set that could result in Oscar nominations down the road.
“Not Okay” displays a keen ear for dialogue and the willingness to tackle some serious issues regarding the need so many have to be seen and heard — even if they’re not all that concerned about what they have to say and the shortcuts they’ll take in pursuit of being noticed.
“Not Okay” isn’t exactly a swing and a miss. But it doesn’t quite connect in solid fashion.