It’s an enduring paradox that for as much time as we spend on the internet – narrativizing ourselves, intaking others, dissecting content into takes and memes – very few films accurately capture the experience of social media or the head-scrambling velocity of being online. Recent attempts have fallen flat, either into cheap, simple didacticism (Mainstream’s message of internet = bad) or Zola’s hazy, languorous adaptation of what was a punchy viral Twitter thread. The good ones –Eighth Grade, Ingrid Goes West, Searching – have managed to convincingly portray the warping force of the digital world through maladaptations of human behavior, with a grasp on a specific micro-era of digital culture.
Not Okay, written and directed by 27-year-old Quinn Shephard, aims squarely for the title of “internet film”. Its protagonist, friendless twentysomething Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch), works as a photo editor at a Refinery29/Buzzfeed-esque digital media company called Depravity. Her bedazzled phone is totem, oracle, companion – she clutches it near constantly, pecks at it listlessly in her dark Brooklyn apartment. With her two platinum hair streaks and candy-colored rings, Deutch, who is also 27, looks like a Zoomer, and Danni calls herself a “zillennial”, but her obsession with social media perfection and becoming a New York writer feel distinctly millennial.
To the even somewhat online, Shephard’s screenplay will recall a number of late-2010s viral phenomena, mashed up and rearranged into an original story which feels like Spotify radio – smooth, vaguely derivative, the enjoyment dependent more on familiarity than insight. Like the notorious internet celebrity Caroline Calloway (who appears briefly as herself), Danni is the child of rich parents who aspires to writing success without actual writing. Like Anna Delvey, the so-called “Soho grifter” who inspired the Netflix series Inventing Anna, Danni spins a web of intricate lies that win her fawning friends and, eventually, widespread scorn.
Like Aubrey Plaza’s Ingrid in Ingrid Goes West, Danni is a talented mimic primarily motivated by obsession: first, with co-worker Colin (Dylan O’Brien), a weed influencer whose style – bleached hair, ambient vape cloud, Black slang-inflected speech – riffs on the internet thirst for e-boy dirtbags a la Pete Davidson. In order to impress him and spite more successful co-worker Harper (Nadia Alexander), Danni invents a writer’s retreat in Paris and photoshops her glamorous time abroad. As in Dear Evan Hansen, Danni’s silly and somewhat sympathetic lie escalates into an unforgivable, attention-grabbing one after a traumatic event: a fictionalized terrorist bombing in Paris that kills dozens.
Unable to admit that she was never there, Danni barrels ahead: “Im ok and safe. I don’t have reliable service yet but please know I am alright. Devastated for those who are not,” she posts on Instagram stories. At a support group to bolster her story, Danni meets her second fixation, Rowan (an excellent Mia Isaac), a teenage school shooting survivor turned heralded activist, a la the Parkland survivors of March for Our Lives. Craving Rowan’s celebrity, genuine purpose and preternatural talent, Danni channels Rowan’s trauma into a viral article, a hashtag, and false clout.
Danni is, clearly, not a person to root for, and it is a testament to Deutch’s bubbly yet grounded performance of anxiety that we care to see her growth, whether in the inevitable comeuppance or the seeds of an actual bond with Rowan. But Not Okay as a whole struggles with what to make of Danni’s house of cards, other than to illustrate that she can build them, that these things happen, that (surprise!) the desire for validation and main characters can breed a vampiric kind of fame. As in, say, a scroll through Twitter, Not Okay occasionally hits a nerve – the mini-thrill of the half-second between hitting post and your story hitting Instagram, the dopamine hit of a like with a blue checkmark next to it, the anxious weight of the “seen by” list. A scene in which Colin hooks up with Danni and uses her famous victimhood as dirty talk got under my skin. Danni’s confused mix of feelings toward Rowan – envy, concern, greed, loyalty – are a heightened version of the parasocial bonds formed through the Instagram portal.
But these moments are undercut by the film’s looseness of tone and time, at odds with the fanged boldness and timestamped specificity of the online. Not Okay feels very 2019 but is set vaguely in the present – or at least, a time when everyone is always in the office, no mention of the pandemic. At times, it veers into blunt satire of a performative woke, clickbait-y workplace (“Depravity would be honored to give you a platform,” Danni’s editor says when she learns of Danni’s story). At others, it somewhat successfully parses the difference between Danni’s pathological narcissism and anxiety, which is less successfully, often uncomfortably, leveled with the actual trauma of a Black teenage shooting survivor.
It’s only at the moving end, which hands the mic to Rowan, that Not Okay settles on something sharp, resisting a tidy redemption arc for Danni and suggesting something beyond an artfully arranged, well-acted pastiche. Not Okay is like many “internet movies” before it – approaching uncanny valley, somewhat obvious, just a little off — but this unsettling darkness makes it a solid entry into the canon of just-okay social media films.
Not Okay is out on Hulu in the US and Disney+ in the UK and Australia on 29 July