“Not Okay” Hits a Little Too Close to Home

It’s not an easy task to write a film that accurately depicts our time. It almost always feels like forced dialogue pumped to the brim with buzzwords and references to moments of cultural-significance. And hey, Not Okay is all of those things. However, by the end of it, I couldn’t help but feel a heavy sense of deja vu. It felt like I’d seen it — or, more accurately, felt it — before.

As a 23 year old white person, this film showed me a side of myself that I don’t always like to look at. Though I came from pretty humble beginnings compared to the lead, I still crawled my way to NYC to try my hand at success. I worked at a fancy startup in Soho as a writer. I lived in the “L-train part of Bushwick.” Hell, I was even treated for mild case of serotonin syndrome at Woodhull Hospital (a setting in the film) after mixing my anti-depressants with a weight-loss supplement. So, yeah. This character appeals to the deeply greedy, insatiable parts of my psyche that linger under the surface, begging for attention.

And watching her inevitable downfall was so much more impactful than any think piece in The Cut about how entitled we all are. Zoey Deutch’s Danni — the story’s…protagonist? — is a twenty-something photo editor at a spoof on popular digital magazines (aptly named “Depravity.”) She has no friends and is obsessed with becoming a hot-shot writer and, ultimately, an influencer.

When she starts posting Photoshopped images of herself in Paris to impress a coworker fuckbro (played by Dylan O’Brian), things start to go her way. But they soon turn sour when a terrorist attack hits the Arc de Triomphe a few minutes after she claims to be there, leaving her scrambling for a traumatic survival story. The fake trauma comes with success, though, as people find her (an attractive, young white woman) the ultimate strong survivor to raise up as inspiration. But a lie that big can’t last forever, and when things start to unravel she looses everything she ever wanted and more.

The director of Not Okay, Quinn Shepard, has openly said that Danni is not supposed to be a likable character. And, honestly, she isn’t. She is, however, a realistic reflection of young white people today. The yearning for success, validation, constant feed refreshes and dopamine cravings from wherever we can get a hit. She’s also relatable, to an uncomfortable degree. Her obsession with Caroline Calloway for example (an obsession I had and wrote about only two years ago), is something that so many young people can reluctantly attest to. There’s something about the image of a fucked up, selfish, privileged person being put into their version of the end of the world — social exclusion — that makes us feel less horrible about what we’re doing with our fucked up, selfish, privileged lives.

It’s the TikTok trend of filming mental breakdowns or the cult following of books like Normal People and My Year of Rest and Relaxation. We want to watch ourselves fall apart, because it’s a reminder (of which Danni presumably learns) that everything we care about — everything that haunts us not to chase — is manufactured. Like a true crime documentary or a NYT op-ed about a national tragedy; it’s a pretty, consumable facade covering the bloodshed and heartache of people less fortunate than us. People that experience things that we could never imagine. People that can’t be bothered to fear being irrelevant; they’re too busy working multiple jobs, raising children on minimum wage, escaping abuse, existing as a non-white person in basically any situation.

And, yeah, I recognize the irony (potentially Morisettian irony?) of me writing about learning something from this vapid content creator. I, a vapid content creator, can at least recognize the silliness of it all. But that’s my point, really. As a white person in the U.S. with financial security and a college education, I have no good reason to hate myself and my life. Nevertheless, I do. We find reasons to be the victim of our story. We search for obstacles to triumph over. When we can’t find them, we create them.

The final moment of the film see’s Danni go to meet a former friend at a slam poetry performance to apologize for the harm that she’s caused. The poem that this friend performs, though, solidifies to Danni that an apology now would only be self-serving — proof that she’s redeemable and worthy of forgiveness. With this, Danni chooses to walk away and leave her former friend to work through the pain she caused without adding any fuel to the flame. For the first time in the film (and possibly in her life) she purposely removes herself from focus. She physically walks out of the spotlight, representing her deeper step out of the “main character” position.

Danni is all of us young, privileged people searching to find purpose, daydreaming about notoriety, not taking care of ourselves to continue our Frances Ha/Euphoria/Fleabag-esque journey of the fucked up young person. It’s a pretty picture — one that’s perpetuated by TikTok trends and Lana Del Rey songs — but it’s not a pretty reality. It’s a harmful reality, full of emotional abuse and neglect to the people we care about most. It’s a reality full of self (loathing or obsession), with all others listed as side characters or extras.

But what happens when the lights go dark? When someone in your life needs you in a way that doesn’t progress your plot line? A lifetime of numbness and missed opportunities for connection. Black and white GIFs of thin white women crying. Living your whole life thinking the world is against you, when everything was actually made for you.

The truth is, this mindset is not likely something that I, or any of us privileged people, can change overnight. Completely breaking yourself out of “main character syndrome” is basically impossible, but recognizing that it exists and practicing gratitude instead of self-made victimhood is a solid start, I think. Considering the weight of other people’s emotions might help too. Taking a step out of the spotlight instead of waiting for it to go out.

But, hey, I probably just wanted to be in the spotlight by writing this, so maybe don’t take me as an example here.

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