Cert – Recommended for ages 16+, Run-time – 1 hour 40 minutes, Director – Quinn Shephard
Aspiring writer Danni (Zoey Deutch) is thrown into the influencer sphere after creating a narrative that she survived a recent terrorist attack in Paris, whilst at her New York home.
In the case of writer-director Quinn Shephard’s Not Okay being placed by Disney, under the Searchlight Pictures label, directly onto Disney+ there are a number of positives to this decision. One prominent plus being that of the pause button. There’s no denying the difficult watch that pans out over the 100 minute run-time as Shephard consistently increases the levels of discomfort we experience in each scene, as the actions of central figure Danni (Zoey Deuth) – who we’re warned about before the studio logos even roll as being “an unlikable female protagonist” – lead her to spiral into further depths of cringe and wince inducing lies.
Alongside being an endurance test, although worthwhile watching without using the pause button, home viewing is perhaps a fine option for those more prone to audible reactions. On numerous occasions I found myself gasping, groaning and blurting, urging the central figure to just stop talking! Amongst exasperated sighs of simply “oh no” and “stop”.
During one key scene we see Danni attend a survivors group. Her story is that she has survived a terrorist bombing in Paris whilst attending a writers retreat, hoping to develop her skills to make it from photo editor to writer for the online publication she works for, Depravity. However, Danni was in fact still in New York, simply Photoshopping picture to make it seem as if she was in Paris in the build-up to the attack. The only reason she’s gone to group therapy is in the hope of getting information for a realistic sounding article she plans on writing. It’s a painfully uncomfortable scene in the context of why she’s really there, especially in regards to how naturally the rest of the group – including shooting and bombing survivors – seem to open up and discuss their experiences with trauma and how it’s stayed with them. All expertly handled by Shephard’s excellent direction which subtly manages to build up the levels of cringe-related tension and discomfort throughout the film as Danni begins to trend on various social media platforms and live the life of a famous influencer – the one she’s long-dreamed of.
Part of Danni’s fame comes from her growing friendship with young school shooting survivor Rowan Alred (Mia Isaac), a passionate activist calling for gun control and more response from politicians. We see her delivering occasional speeches and spoken word performances which strike an emotional chord as she angrily blasts her words into the microphone and through the speakers around her. Whilst not making eye contact with the camera you can feel a fiery connection to what she’s saying and experiencing, the panic that instantly hits her eyes as a lockdown drill alarm begins in her school, a set of passionate points which command the screen whenever the call is being declared.
Yet, it’s a call which simply further fuels Deutch’s character’s lies and sprawling narrative of what it was like for her to survive a tragic event which she was not a part of. Yet, amongst the drama and tragedy that Danni digs herself into personally there are still occasional scatterings of humour here and there. Rarely seem to be directed from her, apart from in the early stages before the string of lies begins, but more from those around her – and indeed their reactions to her. Such points are well blended into their respective scenes and manage to not disrupt the flow which is formed, while also in some ways increasing the overall tone and style of the film as it tracks Danni as she stops considering whether she should stop as she sees how she’s benefitting from her false narrative.
As we pass the hour mark things do begin to lean away from the discomfort and more into a clearly visible direct line to the ending. Her actions are less focused and frequent as the expected developments – which are teased at the very start of the film as she sits in front of her laptop watching death threats and abuse hurl towards her in a rapidly doomscrolling Twitter feed – come into play, crashing into her growing web. This certainly doesn’t stop the overall quality of the film from faltering. It’s still well handled and engaging, and certainly allows for a bit more light to be shone upon Isaac and her performance, just on a slightly calmer plain. Perhaps the biggest success of the final 40 minutes, however, is the fact that sympathy isn’t really created towards Danni. It’s more in regards to those around her, even in confrontational scenes. While there may be some as the internet pile on begins and we see the abuse that she’s subjected to it’s certainly not delivered en masse in an instant – showing the restraint and effectiveness within both Shephards screenplay and direction.
There’s a strong film within Not Okay. One which certainly makes for a tough watch due to the intense levels of increasing discomfort brought about by the actions of the central character. However, that discomfort feels intentional and is undeniably effective in keeping you engaged in the film, while also at a distance from the central figure who you can’t help but loudly urge to stop her actions on many occasions. It’s an engaging, if fittingly trialling, piece of work which pulls its elements together well for an effective, sometimes enjoyable amongst the drama and tragedies, time.
With a plot which only really properly becomes familiar as things start to calm down, Not Okay is an excellently pitched endurance test in almost painful discomfort from the subtleties of Quinn Shephard and her cast and crew.