Danni Sanders doesn’t get what she’s doing wrong.
In the beginning of Hulu’s film “Not Okay,” the incompetent 20-something photo editor and wannabe writer (Zoey Deutch) proudly turns in her first article to her boss (Negin Farsad). It’s titled “Why Am I So Sad?,” and she complains about typical things — her lack of a private office, her FOMO from missing 9/11 because she was on a cruise.
When she’s met with exasperation, Danni scrunches her eyebrows and asks, “Can’t tone-deaf be like a brand, though?” Her boss tells her no, in the deflated form of a muttered “Oh, God,” with a hand to the temple. But, despite this initial warning, Danni is determined to find out the answer the hard way.
Hoping to impress her influencer coworker Colin (a blonde Dylan O’Brien in an ever-present vape cloud), Danni uses her Photoshop skills to pretend on social media that she’s abroad on a Paris writers’ retreat. But when unexpected tragedy strikes in Paris, she wakes up to missed calls and concerned texts from her previously icy coworkers, and the sudden outpour of attention and pity delights her. So, she goes along with it.
It’s a nauseating, thought-provoking narrative for the silver screen. While the film is marketed as a comedy, its lighthearted ignorance soon spins into unbearable, infuriating disquiet that’s more characteristic of a drama. Though populated with exasperating vernacular and bleak visual motifs, “Not Okay” chronicles a stimulating tale that leaves audiences entertained, upset and pensive all at once.
Even though director Quinn Shephard’s satire flashes an onscreen warning for an unlikeable female protagonist, there’s still little to prepare viewers for the absolute loathing they’ll feel toward Danni. Deutch nails her shift from whiny to wicked, making audiences prickle at her wide eyes searching for sympathy she doesn’t deserve.
On a high from her impulsive lie, Danni quickly leverages her coworkers’ condolences to her advantage. She pouts, her boss yields. Soon greenlighted by her boss to write a personal essay about her faux survivorship, Danni infiltrates a trauma support group for her research. There, she befriends young Rowan Aldren (Mia Isaac), a school shooting survivor and social activist famous for her spoken word poetry.
When “Not Okay” surprises with moments of serious emotional gravity, they’re often enabled by the agonizing relationship between Danni and Rowan. A necessary anchor to the film and evidently a rising Hollywood star, Isaac radiates goodness as the outspoken, compassionate Rowan. With her integrity countering Danni’s insincerity, their bittersweet relationship ticks like a time bomb.
The way Danni exploits their sisterly bond is beyond despicable, but it’s also what makes “Not Okay” work. Though only sporadically subtle or profound, the film finds some success with its compelling premise and consequent introspections on white privilege, influencer culture and the commodification of trauma.
Even under the weight of these heavy subjects and Danni’s ballooning superiority complex, “Not Okay” never quite buckles. However, while the film reveals the harms of performative activism, its blatant — and sometimes insipid — style does detract from the severity of its wide-reaching social themes. Danni posts a photo of herself in a “woke” shirt, markets herself as an activist on talk shows and supports a beret Snapchat filter to honor the victims of Paris.
It’s not difficult for the film to will its audience into rooting for Danni’s suffering, and such heavy reliance on dramatic irony makes for a somewhat predictable ending. Really, the film’s preachy resolution isn’t much of a resolution at all — when contextualized in the real world, it’s too resigned, even demoralizing.
Confronting performative activism and supporting real social change must be perpetual, but the somewhat stunted ending of “Not Okay” doesn’t provide optimistic prospects about healing. The conclusive emotional release is anything but hollow, yet its solemness leaves audiences uncertain about how to digest the narrative’s dark implications for reality.
When the credits roll, many audience members find themselves asking the same question. It’s the top question under Google’s “People also ask” section for the film: “Is ‘Not Okay’ based on a true story?” The answer doesn’t really matter. Just asking the question tells you all you need to know.