Am I OK?, the directorial debut of Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne, is a simple, mostly familiar coming-out story that follows Lucy (Dakota Johnson), a shy, insecure 32-year-old who gradually embarks upon a journey of self-realization and sexual awakening after embracing her previously hidden attraction to women. No longer pursuing her passion as a painter and instead now working as a receptionist in a spa, Lucy operates as a loner navigating an easy comfort zone, a woman who, apart from her lifelong best friend Jane (Sonoya Mizuno), has never really experienced profound intimacy with anyone (men have been relegated to only handshakes). But boozed and confused, Lucy decides to reveal her secret to Jane — who recently dropped a bombshell about moving to London in six months — and later shares more with her about a secret crush on flirty masseuse Brittany (Kiersey Clemons). Given this setup, it’s easy to see the predictable places Lauren Pomerantz’s thin screenplay will take the film: Lucy will contend with the newfound mess of her emotional life and her struggles to find solid footing.
It’s also obvious from the jump that Notaro and Allynne’s main concern is in crafting a heartfelt, pleasantly cringey rom-dram that hews much closer to a lived-in experience than the bolder contours of more dramatized narrative. For better or worse, then, things stay intentionally relaxed in Am I OK?, a low-ceiling effort with specific goals in mind. To that end, the film — which in many ways takes a coming-of-age shape despite detailing the story of a thirty-something — relies heavily on a series of (usually) amiable, one-on-one conversations between characters, most frequently Lucy and Jane. The problem is that as the film progresses, this low-key, mumblecore-ish quality begins to feel flat in the absence of more substance, scanning more like a collection of no-stakes, somewhat rhythmless chit-chat than a proper narrative. Even at a short 86 minutes, the effect is dulling.
But within the film’s breezy small scale and its slice-of-life storytelling, most of which takes place in various bougie interiors — restaurants, apartments, yoga classes — what registers is the outsized on-screen appeal of the gifted Dakota Johnson, her playfulness and warmth easily commanding the camera (and the attention of the viewers), her performance both genuinely hilarious and movingly vulnerable. It’s something of a mixed blessing for the film, however, as her wonderful work here places the rest of the actresses (and their underwritten roles) firmly in her shadow, leaking energy whenever the narrative wanders (specifically, during a subplot involving Jane). This enervation extends even to the film’s would-be, lightly erotic scenes between Brittany and Lucy, which instead mostly play out in cheesy fashion (in one scene, Lucy blushes and excitedly texts Jane, “Brittany just massaged me”).
Minor quibbles to be sure, but for as harmless as Am I OK? is, it’s still hard to rock with on either a character or narrative level, both of which remain notably underdeveloped. Notaro and Allynne capture a gauzy, bittersweet emotionalism that proves more appealing, but the film’s aesthetic qualities never really become more than that — though some scenes do suggest a little visual pluck, such as a couple where characters are set horizontally across the compositions. But like the film’s protagonist who pines for some profound self-discovery (and which toward the end unconvincingly wraps up via too-hasty execution), the co-directors’ work here can best be regarded as a good effort, its unassuming, observational nature inoffensive but offering little to the canon of queer cinema. Both character and film would have likewise benefitted from more ambition, from taking risks that would leave easy comfort zones behind. Taking the film’s title as a question of the viewer, then, the answer is yes: Am I OK? is exactly ok, and not much more or less.
Published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 4.