Nathan Weinbender reviews " Not Okay"
Danni wants to be famous. More specifically, she wants to be online famous, which requires a certain kind of savvy she doesn’t possess. She doesn’t appear to have specific talents or interests that she might channel into notoriety. She just wants to be noticed.
She’s an “unlikeable female protagonist,” as the film Not Okay warns us in a cheeky opening disclaimer, and she deserves a movie like this, which you might find yourself watching through your fingers. It plays out like a less intense version of a Black Mirror episode, with a desperate person attempting to weaponize technology for personal gain, and that technology striking back like a riled-up cobra.
As played by Zooey Deutch, Danni is a striver but a wallflower, a photo editor at a trendy New York culture site that has no plans of putting her anywhere on the homepage. In hopes of getting the attention of her colleague, a perma-stoned social media superstar played by Dylan O’Brien, Danni concocts a plan: She fabricates a trendy writer’s retreat in Paris, tells her colleagues that she’ll be attending, and then spends a week holed up in her apartment and posting doctored photos of herself at the Eiffel Tower.
But then, a curveball: There’s a coordinated terrorist attack on a number of French landmarks, and Danni’s elaborate but mostly harmless lie now requires her to pretend that she’s survived a horrifying event of great international import. It’s how she finally starts to get those Instagram followers she always wanted, and how she finds her way to a support group for survivors of terrorist violence, where she befriends a teenage gun violence activist named Rowan (Mia Isaac).
You know where this is headed. That’s part of the film’s problem, in a way, because writer-director Quinn Shephard opens it with a prologue showing Danni as the internet’s villain du jour. The plot marches dutifully toward a predestined conclusion — it’s not a matter of if Danni will be found out, but how — and because of that inevitability, the screenplay really could have used one more dramatic complication: Maybe Danni’s ruse could have grown even more comically unwieldy, or involved a co-conspirator getting embroiled in the lie.
The movie ultimately works, however, because of the layered performances by Zooey Deutch and Mia Isaac. Deutch brings shades of subtlety to a character that could have easily been drawn as a monster or a pariah. Danni really isn’t either, and that forces us to hold contradictory feelings about her: We’re bracing for the house of cards to topple, and yet Danni deserves to be found out. Isaac is the best thing in the movie, a relative newcomer to acting who walks away with some disarmingly poignant scenes that further underline Danni’s betrayal and exploitation.
What Not Okay understands implicitly is that social media, no matter how earnestly you use it, is built upon a lie. It’s never been easier for a person to distill their essence down to the most photogenic moments, creating a virtual diary of their highest highs and lowest lows. Danni is just another victim of viral fame, of living vicariously through the internet, and she certainly won’t be the last.
Nathan Weinbender is a film critic and one of the regular co-hosts for Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101” heard Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.