“Can’t tone deaf be, like, a brand though?” muses Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch) within the first five minutes of Not Okay. It’s clear from the start that Danni is supposed to be one of “those” zillennials. She’s desperate to be known, for popularity and for fame by simply being herself online. It’s the era of the Instagram Influencer and Danni wants a piece of that pie, no matter what it costs.
Danni is a writer for a website called Depravity, but she isn’t nearly as successful as her coworkers. She decides to fake an acceptance to a writer’s retreat in Paris to impress Colin (Dylan O’Brien), an Instagram Influencer who also works at Depravity. In actuality, Danni is holed up in her apartment in Bushwick with Photoshop on her laptop. She posts fake pictures on her Instagram page about the glamorous life she’s supposedly leading in Paris. Her lie spirals out of control when one of her fake posts places her near a terrorist attack.
Deutch and O’Brien are very good at playing insufferable, narcissistic influencers. O’Brien’s Colin seems to exist only in clouds of vape smoke and speak only in internet cliches, and some may find these characters too grating to put up with over the course of a full movie.
Not Okay is a bit like the New York spiritual sister of Ingrid Goes West, but more than that, it’s an interesting look at what social media has done to us as a society. The endless scrolling, the hyperfixation of getting “likes,” and the need to be the center of the narrative have greatly impacted our ability to process major events. Everything is distilled into content that breeds more content, until the output is so distorted it’s impossible to remember where the narrative began. Our collective traumas are turned into internet fodder. The game-ification of social media has created a blockage of meaning. Social media is meant to be distracting, yet it’s the main news source for so many people. Tragedies are headlines that are scrolled past to get to the cute dog videos.
Where does that leave society? Sure, Danni’s fake experience of living through a bombing is greatly and comedically exaggerated, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. The need to be famous is inherent in humanity, but the world of social media has made fame seem more achievable to more people, for better or worse. That’s not to say social media is not without its positives. The connectivity and sense of community that come from the internet are unmatched, but it’s time we reckon with the consequences.
Not Okay is not an easy film to classify. It doesn’t fall firmly in the absurdist comedy genre it begins as. Instead, the movie addresses genuine, serious anger about the state of gun violence in the United States through the character of Rowen (Mia Isaac). She is a survivor of a school shooting who meets Danni in a survivor support group. Danni sees Rowen as a means of upping her social media cred, and it takes her far longer than it should to realize how much her lying affects Rowen’s experiences. The further Danni immerses herself in this lie of being a recovering survivor, the further the film twists into a genuine critique of American society.
The finale is a spoken word poem by Rowen at her school’s talent show. Danni attends because she’s hoping to make amends with Rowen and apologize for the months she spent lying. As Danni sits in the crowd, she listens to Rowen’s poem about how Danni, a white woman, co-opted and stole Rowen’s, a Black girl, words for her own superficial gain. It’s the film’s most poignant moment, delivered incredibly by Isaac. The audience doesn’t get to hear a rebuttal or a reply from Danni. Just applause and encouragement for Rowen. Having Danni speak again or try to claim a part of the spotlight again would be antithetical to Rowen’s poem.
Not Okay, like Zola before it, is about the white women who harness their whiteness as a weapon. Danni “survives” a bomb and has countless media outlets vying for the chance to tell her story. Rowen lives through a school shooting and single-handedly plans grassroots marches against gun violence. Not Okay is a deceptively scathing look at whose tragedies are told and whose are scrolled past.