Synopsis: An ambitious young woman, desperate for followers and fame, fakes a trip to Paris to up her social media presence. When a terrifying incident takes place in the real world and becomes part of her imaginary trip, her white lie becomes a moral quandary that offers her all the attention she’s wanted.
Stars: Zoey Deutch, Dylan O’Brien, Mia Isaac, Embeth Davidtz, Nadia Alexander, Tia Dionne Hodge, Negin Farsad, Karan Soni, Dash Perry
Director: Quinn Shephard
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: When I was in school, I hadn’t officially been diagnosed FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) yet, so myself, my peers and others in our age range had to struggle mightily with the nagging sense that something was off whenever opportunity passed us by without any outlet for relief. There was no one to share our burden or feel our pain. I won’t say it was a lonely life, but there were stretches when only a good block of Must-See TV or another popular weekday line-up would cure those blues. So I get it. I get that everyone (mainly) needs to be socialized and be part of the discussion in one way or another.
That’s why I could understand what drives the protagonist in writer/director Quinn Shephard’s cringe comedy Not Okay to make terrible decisions throughout the film. What is hard to fathom, and what I find that I have to battle with constantly, is understanding why the decisions have to snowball to such an avalanche in the first place. The more we want to be noticed, the less we want to take credit or, more to the point, own up to our piece into the system we have created. It’s something Shephard admirably aims at in her film, setting it apart from your typical “I’ve got a secret!” gangly comedy.
Working for an online publication known for putting out the goopiest of puff pieces, Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch, The Disaster Artist) is stuck behind a desk editing photos. Ostracized by her co-workers for being that one annoying office employee that can’t take a hint and read social cues, Danni is a try-hard that targets prominent popularity as the highest of mountains to climb. Desperate to become a writer and contribute more to her job, she overhears a successful colleague talking about a recent Euro writers retreat and decides to impress her boss by going on one of her own. Of course, a ticket overseas is way expensive, and she hasn’t applied anywhere…but with the magic of photoshop and some PTO days, she fakes a enriching trip to Paris and fills her social media with info on her fantasy (in more ways than one) journey, convincing everyone in her life she has traveled to the City of Lights.
Then a tragedy occurs in Paris, and Danni is faced with a decision. Come clean and tell everyone it was a lie, or go all in and ride the wave of supportive messages she’s received from once ambivalent family and friends concerned for her well-being. You can imagine which route was easier to take. When she “arrives” back in the States, she’s thrust into a National spotlight but begins to feel pangs of guilt about her lie, guilt that drives her to visit an emotional support group for survivors of mass tragedies. She meets Rowan (Mia Isaac, Don’t Make Me Go), an advocate for gun safety after she was involved in a school shooting that claimed her sister’s life. Always teetering on telling the truth, Danni is inspired by this young activist and is eventually swept up in her cause. Finally, she realizes how deep she’s become immersed in her tall tale. Can she make things right without losing her new friend and damaging the credibility both of them have built together?
There are a lot of moments throughout Not Okay where you will likely find yourself wince-ing at the level to which Danni sinks to maintain her lie. Like the recent Vanessa Bayer comedy on Showtime, I Love That For You, we have a flawed protagonist who tells an unforgivable lie that will be revealed sooner or later. The longer they keep up the charade, the harder you know it will be to restore their lives when it all comes to light. Credit goes to Shephard for making that dénouement a minor point of the movie by the time we get to it. By then, the characters have progressed beyond just needing to fess up about untruths, requiring a hard reset of character to rebuild what they lost.
If you weren’t on the Deutch train before Not Okay, I’m hedging a bet you’ll be ready to buy a ticket after watching her work here. In the past, I’ve been tripped up a bit with her performances, finding them a little too preciously coy. The sadness of Danni comes out fairly quickly here, and it makes her relatable – we may not all have let this go on as long as she does, but who hasn’t thought about how easy it would be fudge the truth just to be allowed into a conversation? Deutch handles these tricky turns well, not asking us to feel sorry for Danni but not excusing her behavior.
Already having a great July with the release of Don’t Make Me Go on Amazon Prime, Isaac turns in another blisteringly good performance as a young woman rocked by a tragedy that continues putting on a brave face for others. As the veritable poster child for a movement, Rowan has to be the strong one even if she’s still vulnerable inside. Isaac handles all these emotions well and delivers an impassioned speech near the end with a hefty vigor that audiences wouldn’t find in any run-of-the-mill younger actor. It was also fun to see Deutch reunite with her co-star in The Outfit Dylan O’Brien (Bumblebee) as a Pete Davidson-esque office drone Danni has eyes for, and Embeth Davidtz (Old) exuding a cold snobbish detachment playing Danni’s mom. More shoutouts to Tia Dionne Hodge as Rowan’s mom and Nadia Alexander (Monsterland) as Danni’s co-worker trying to figure out why the girl they all couldn’t stand one week is now so popular.
I’m not sure how inspiring the film is for our current college graduates entering the workforce because it paints them as slightly vapid and social media obsessed (oh wait, they sort of are…sorry!), but Not Okay keeps pace with an evolving conversation over how much value we place on being seen. Is it enough for millions of people to notice what we do and like/comment/follow, or is it more meaningful if we can connect with one person that can make a difference to ourselves or others? By writing a story sprung from a fantastical set-up and then tingeing it with satisfying emotional drama, Shephard seems to show us that life will surprise you no matter how you plan.