We like to watch train wrecks, even if we watch them through our splayed fingers. In Not Okay (2022; streaming on Hulu) we see the smoking and twisted wreckage in the very first scene. Throwing the viewer into the conclusion and then going back to show what leads up to that point has become a common dramatic device, almost a cliché. I think it works a little better here because it is not the hero dying and then at the end—just kidding, he’s alive! Even so, the journey to that point is full of cringe-inducing and awkward moments observing Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch) and her entire lack of self-awareness.
No doubt, they could have cast someone other than Zoey Deutch in the lead, and it would have been a mediocre, maybe even slightly above average, movie. She has help here, especially from Mia Isaac as Rowan, but Deutch is the one who lifts Not Okay to an entirely different level. (In my opinion, Zoey Deutch is one of the most underrated actresses working now. She carries every emotion in her facial expression. Besides Not Okay, she has one of the funniest bit parts in the Zombieland movies, and on the other end of the spectrum, she does subtle drama very well in The Outfit.)
On the surface, Not Okay might not seem to deserve much attention. It could be another throw-away take-down of “influencer culture.” It could have been a typical Behind the Music-style rise to prominence, self-destruction, redemption-arc, morality play. (One of the “chapters” is, in fact, called something like “No redemption arc for me.”) But as Danni says in one of the later scenes, “I’m not sure if I’ve learned anything,” and we believe her.
This is indeed a satire on the superficiality of influencers, or at least the desire to be an influencer. We might well ask whether there is anything positive, edifying, or good about social media influencers. But even if some kind of case could be made for possible benefits of such people (famous for being famous?), Danni is an empty vessel, reshaping herself in any image, or taking on whatever characteristics might cause her to be known or famous. She is a chameleon; she is not anything in herself. And that requires that everything she is and does and says is a lie. She is, at best, a narcissist and, at worst, a sociopath—although Deutch plays her in such a way that we have trouble not feeling sympathetic to her desire to simply be liked.
In a world that runs on social media, Not Okay could easily be dismissed (as we do with any other hot-take clickbait). That would be a mistake because it has layers that expose what is worst in us and in the online “culture” we enable and sustain. When Danni finds herself isolated and shunned, she seems more upset by the fact that people don’t like her, than by her own manipulative actions. We do not know, even in the last moment, whether she has really changed at all, or whether her applause for Rowan is simply another mask she’s trying on. In some ways, it reminds me of Christopher Beha’s Arts and Entertainments, a satire of reality shows, the precursor to Instagram and TikTok popularity. Both are devastating and ultimately saddening in their implications for the sorts of things we watch (“consume”). Now, instead of watching “reality” television, the entire world really is one big stage.
That apparent lack of change in Danni’s character prevents Not Okay from becoming simply another movie where we feel good about ourselves by first hating the “unlikable female protagonist” (as the pre-movie title card warns us!) and then congratulating ourselves when she changes to be more like our ideal of the “good person.” When Danni does not improve, we are left to ourselves, confronted with our own glee at the downfall of “bad people.” But of course, we ought to be much more circumspect when condemning the social-media depiction of other people’s sins. As the proverb warns us, “he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished” (17:5) and “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest Yahweh see it and be displeased and turn away his anger from him” (24:17-18). Solomon could have added, “and the same calamity come upon you.” Instead, often we believe that everyone else deserves to be punished and ostracized for their actions, while we deserve mercy and understanding. But it is by the measure we use—and encourage to be used—that we ourselves will be measured, both temporally and eternally.
Not Okay, while essentially a comedy, is a sobering warning against our cultural desire to be known and liked and retweeted and followed, as well as against the speed with which we turn on those who exploit the system and deceive us. As long as we think we’re in on the game, we are happy to be knowingly deceived. But when we are unknowingly deceived within the same system, we are even more eager to be “outraged,” morally and righteously appalled. And the outrage cycle turns quickly: tomorrow there will be another person or another event for us to excoriate. We are rightfully upset when someone tries to exploit for profit a tragedy, or cash in on the status of being a victim; everyone is mad that Danni was not actually in Paris at the time of the terrorist attack. But the deeper problem is inherent to the mob mentality of social media: we change our avatars, or put flags in our bios, or send happy thoughts and prayers toward whatever is the crisis du jour. We are often no closer to the tragedy than Danni was to the Arc de Triomphe. Perhaps our differences from Danni are more in degree than in kind.
A movie like Not Okay exposes the character Danni, but it does more than that; it exposes us. It accomplishes its satirical purpose by exaggerating the problem underneath our accepted reality until our anger and condemnation have no target but our own patterns of thinking and acting. Who makes people famous for being famous? Who increases the follower count? Who wants to share some of the fame by being close to famous people? Who gushes platitudes onto celebrity social media accounts, hoping to be noticed? And who self-righteously revels in the misfortune of those same celebrities? We have nowhere else to look but in our own mirrors. That may be the most depressing thing about Not Okay—but no worries; like Danni, we find it easier to ignore the darkness in our own hearts than to change our habits.