With Not Okay, Shephard succeeds at crafting an unlikable female protagonist that feels true to our world and a film unafraid to reflect that world back at us.
Viewers beware, this film here centers an unlikable female character. That’s Word of God. Quinn Shephard’s latest feature kicks things off with a cheeky content warning, advising discretion for those uncomfortable with flashing lights, themes of trauma, and women who aren’t classically sympathetic. A smirk-inducing smidge of dark comedy barely one second into the runtime — is that some sort of record? Shephard’s film, the Zoey Deutch-led Not Okay, follows up her 2017 debut Blame, a teen-facing psychological drama that remixes elements of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Critics regarded Blame as earnest but rough around the edges, a solid start to an intriguing career. As a sophomore outing, Not Okay has a stronger command of its tone and themes. It juggles its commitments to earning laughs and having something to say, achieving substance without ever tipping over into self-seriousness. But full disclosure, this protagonist is indeed unlikable.
The film begins with a flash-forward. Danni Sanders (Deutch) is a national pariah, so reviled that online retailers sell shooting targets with her face on them and Paris Hilton can rock a shirt reading “Cancel Danni Sanders” for clout. We then flash back to before the evident catastrophe, where Sanders is a desperate, air-headed, self-involved photo editor for the Jezebel-esque outlet Depraved. She dreams of breaking through as a writer, and after having a tone-deaf personal essay of hers turned down, she overhears her colleague, Harper (Nadia Alexander), mention her pursuit of a writer’s retreat. Sanders is also smitten with Depraved’s obnoxious weed blogger, Colin (Dylan O’Brien), and lies about attending a Parisian writer’s retreat herself in a bid to impress him. Alone in her Bushwick apartment, she devises a plot to doctor images of herself in Paris and post them across social media. When news of terrorist bombings in the city makes international headlines, she chooses to continue the lie, rebranding herself into a trauma survivor and viral influencer who enjoys fame before the inevitable fall.
Shephard’s satirical romp is made with zillennials — those, like this writer, born in the liminal generational period between 1993-1998 — in mind. Instagram followers, story views, and verified badges are emblematic of social worth. Montages are scored to bangers from Santigold and Rico Nasty. Seemingly all non-middle-aged characters with speaking roles are fluent in the casual parlance of social justice. The film’s comedy and meta-irony come in doses both absurd and punkish, connoting the sense of being chronically online and “over all this shit.” Sanders, herself a zillennial, embodies the TikTok-popularized pathology of “main character syndrome” to a tee, so saccharinely solipsistic that it would reasonably repel most other well-adjusted people. That’s why she comes across as a “difficult” protagonist less in the vein of Julie from The Worst Person in the World, and more akin to Lily Collins’ Emily from Emily in Paris (Sanders’ garishly red beret and Paris being the focus of her grift are both clear winks at the much hate-watched Netflix series). Though unlike that analog, Not Okay possesses a refreshing well of depth. Sure, there are some predictable reincorporated beats and a few plot contrivances, and some of the reference humor is pretty lowest common denominator: “Harold, you have that app thing for the food?” “Seamless? Grubhub?” But the film’s missteps don’t overshadow its strengths.
While Not Okay’s nonstop topical nods can make it feel like it’s just broadly scratching a bunch of soft targets, there’s actually a nuanced subject interrogated at its core. The film takes on the thorny concept of “whiteness” directly, investigating where the lines on sympathy and redemption are drawn when pretty, privileged white people do bad things. Deutch plays Sanders’ vapidity and vulnerability well, delivering delightfully offbeat, well-timed cringe comedy, while still selling the viewer on the idea that buried beneath the character’s stunting entitlement are the hints of a lonely soul mired in self-hatred. Sanders is a scammer through and through, pathetically co-opting elements of other identities to flesh out the emptiness in her own life, but her relationship with Rowan (played by a standout Mia Isaac), a young Black survivor of a real school shooting, serves to mature her emotionally while making clear the selfishness of using another’s trauma to service your maturation. The film’s final two scenes proceed to bring everything to a head. Poignant and bracing, they sit squarely in the uncomfortably honest space between earned empathy and withheld forgiveness, allowing for a richly subversive anti-conclusion that viewers aren’t likely to expect based on the promotional materials. Shephard succeeds at crafting an unlikable female protagonist that feels true to our world and a film unafraid to reflect that world back at us, in all its considerable hilarity and tragedy.
You can stream Quinn Shephard’s Not Okay on Hulu beginning on July 29.