Last year’s Best Picture-nominated Don’t Look Up was hailed as a modern masterpiece of satire, skewering society in a way only Adam McKay and a cast of famous actors can. But it can easily be said that a new, much smaller, much lower profile film from an ambitious and talented young writer/director (a woman, no less!) that you’ve never heard of has made a film of equal, if not more significant power. Yes, Quinn Shephard’s Not Okay, which drops exclusively on Hulu on July 29, is a biting indictment of our modern society, and, even though its target is not quite as existential as the end of all life as we know it, the film finds a way to be more relatable, palatable and, dare I say it, enjoyable.
Not Okay reminds you of another actress-turned-director’s debut, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, as both films center on a less-than-admirable female protagonist and feature a thoroughly modern style, with spot-on needle drops, energetic style and tonal whiplash. But Shephard does find a voice of her own in Not Okay, her second feature film as a writer/director.
Not Okay stars Zoey Deutch as Danni Sanders, a self-absorbed, entitled, social-media obsessed Gen Z Manhattan-ite who works at a trendy online magazine as a photo editor. But, of course, she sees herself as something much greater, calling herself a writer and asking for an office when, in reality, she’s about to be fired. Delusional and self-centered are Danni’s best features, as she spends every waking minute obsessing about her social media profile, wondering what it will take to improve her online presence—something she equates with love.
When Danni comes up with a half-baked (literally, as she is half-baked) idea to invent a fictional work trip to Paris for herself in order to impress a guy she has a crush on, she thinks all of her dreams have come true when he follows her and people start to notice her (online, at least). But Danni is forced to make a choice when terrorists attack Paris at exactly the same time she pretended to be there. Does she lean into her lie and reap the rewards of the fame that would come from the empathy and sympathy factor, or does she come clean and risk falling even deeper into the pit of anonymity?
In some magical way, Shephard manages to skewer both the cult of social media and so-called influencers as well as society’s unsatiable appetite for embracing victimhood following tragedy. In one fell swoop, Not Okay comments on influencers, followers, terrorism, school shootings, the media and the concept of going viral in a neat and clever package. That package is wrapped in a deliciously upbeat and fast-paced style, as Shephard’s vision of our modern world is cynical and snarky, a toxic combination that is surprising only if you’ve never spent a moment online. She’s able to capture the oeuvre of an entire generation that grew up on, lives for, and exists only for screentime.
The trick of the entire film, however, is in the casting of and the portrayal of Danni, who must be someone the audience loathes but still wants to spend time with. Deutch seems wrong in the beginning, as she comes across as bright, attractive and talented, far from the desperate troll she is supposed to be. And that’s exactly the twisted genius of Not Okay, as Deutch’s Danni subverts expectation, truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We are challenged to see the true character beneath the façade and judge her on what she says and does, not on how she looks and acts. This innate difficulty for the audience proves exactly how our brains have been wired to believe and love all things shiny and pretty, despite their innate ugliness.
This contrarian approach is exactly why Shepard’s screenplay is so engaging. There are messages and commentary galore, but it is all blended into a character study and a fully fascinating story of deception and possible redemption that flies along, ducking in and out of satire, drama and flat-out comedy. There are many laugh out loud moments, and enough cringe-y, all-too-real moments that make your stomach turn, but it’s the moments of honesty and genuine emotion that make everything else work, and they are done without melancholy or melodrama in a screenplay that’s riddled with nuance, despite being about the shallowest people on earth. And the ending is an absolute chef’s kiss.
Even though Deutch’s a-bit-too-perfect physical appearance is a bit of a stretch to believe in this character, it’s clear to see why Shephard asked her to be the one to tell this story, as Deutch’s performance is absolutely brilliant, weaving in and out of her character’s folly, embracing narcissism without a hint of meanness, finding moments of clarity and then slipping back into obliviousness. There is an ease in this performance that guides the audience through the screenplay’s complexities, with Deutch providing the perfect amount of sugar to make the medicine go down.
The performance by Mia Isaac as Danni’s friend Rowan is also incredibly layered and effective, and this should bring the young actress some deserved attention.
But all the attention should be on Quinn Shephard and her engaging, dynamic, and unexpectedly thoughtful film, which not only avoids pitfalls of cliché, but gives us a savagely honest look at ourselves and how we have—wittingly or unwittingly—embraced and enabled a society of pretenders and have ignored the consequences of narcissism, to our own decay.
Searchlight Pictures will premiere Not Okay July 29 exclusively on Hulu.