This article includes spoilers for “Not Okay.”
Admit it: Part of the twisted enjoyment we got from watching “American Idol” came from hearing about all the setbacks that ultimately pushed contestants like Fantasia Barrino to flawlessly belt out “Summertime.” Similarly, we find the sprawling list of ailments, surgeries and personal defeats Olympians like Allyson Felix have endured just as riveting to listen to as the dramatic sports commentators rattle them off ahead of their medal wins.
We live for the drama of everything people have to overcome in order to get to the point where we’re watching them on TV or following them on social media. We click, we like, we favorite — we buy into their whole thing. Because we’re a culture that loves a good sob story.
Or maybe it’s that we savor a good comeback.
Either way, it makes sense that recent screen narratives are tapping into what this fascination says about us, and more interestingly, what happens when the public figure exploits this interest. Sometimes screenwriters explore this quite thoughtfully and actually challenge their protagonists, as in the case of Showtime’s “I Love That for You.” But other times we get something like writer-director Quinn Shephard’s new Hulu movie, “Not Okay,” which premieres July 29.
To be fair, the mere synopsis for “Not Okay” sets it up to be one of those hate-watches people often love to detest that end up getting sequels or second seasons.
A young, able-bodied, straight, cisgender, white woman (Zoey Deutch) feels so unspecial at the diverse online magazine where she works that she makes up a traumatic story about being a survivor so she can feel appreciated and beloved — in the same way as, according to her perspective, some of her Black, trans and/or disabled colleagues.
Disaster ultimately ensues from there, obviously. But first, Shephard puts the audience through a full hour or so of cringe after Danni Sanders (Deutch), a journalist mind you, fabricates a personal essay about narrowly escaping a Paris bombing. In actuality, she was never even in the City of Lights.
Where does she get such vivid details about how a trauma like that actually feels? Not from her own experience, of course. Danni is the type of person who has an absurdly large city apartment on a journalist’s meager salary, whose parents are always there to lend a helping hand. She’s not someone who’s used to even a minor inconvenience.
So, Danni goes to a support group where she — wait for it — zeroes in on a Black girl named Rowan (Mia Isaac), a victim of a school shooting, and befriends her. She listens to her story and co-opts her pain, then fuels it into an article filled with manufactured experiences.
Right about here is when you begin to wonder whether Shephard’s screenplay will make any acknowledgment of race, and why Danni chooses Rowan, someone who’s already marginalized on account of being Black, out of everyone else at the support group. It’s insidious.
But the narrative gallops blindly forward to where Danni gains a skyrocketing number of social media followers, unequivocal support from her colleagues, and unlimited self-care days at work as soon as she publishes the piece.
Meanwhile Rowan, an actual and respected activist dealing with real trauma, takes a back seat to the burgeoning phenomenon of Danni Sanders, The Survivor. Admittedly, it’s more than a little wild that we live in a world where traumatic experiences are even ranked and consumed in this way.
It’s wilder, though, that what Danni understands from this is that Black girls and women are perfect sources for trauma — but, as a white woman, she can actually garner much more support for sharing similar experiences.
As deft as “Not Okay” is for realizing the virtually vampiric nature of how trauma is absorbed in today’s culture, it completely avoids engaging with the role race plays. By ignoring that altogether, Danni feels guilty about lying, but not also about how her whiteness emboldened her to do what she did in the way that she did it.
“Not Okay” just isn’t smart enough to consider or even reflect the wider ramifications of its storyline or even its protagonist, who is shallow and one-dimensional. As a result, the movie ends with a thud — the awful truth comes out and has consequences, but nothing and no one is ultimately challenged.
That’s a rather bleak, albeit realistic, look at the downfall of problematic faves that remain mostly unchecked. Meanwhile, “I Love That for You” actually delves into its protagonist’s similar moral crises in a much more satisfying way.
Vanessa Bayer plays Joanna Gold, a woman who survived leukemia as a child and has long desired to work at a home shopping network. If all she needed for a position was a heart of gold, she would have been hired on the spot. But Joanna is awkward both on camera and in person and has scant professional experience.
What she does have, though, is a good, factual story about having had cancer. But she wouldn’t use that to get a job and gain a massive audience — would she? You betcha. Actually, she goes even further and, reluctantly, tweaks the narrative to say that she still has cancer. Even better.
It’s not that Joanna does this in good conscience. She is wracked with guilt instantaneously. That’s especially true when she sees how many more opportunities open up for her at work as well as the adoration she garners from the colleagues who previously rolled their eyes behind her back when she was interviewing for the role.
There’s an internal dilemma that Joanna experiences that Danni just never has — or at least not for the same reason. Joanna tries to manage the perks she receives on top of just getting the job, while Danni’s whole purpose for exploiting trauma is for the perks and attention. It’s grotesque, even though it reflects a swath of social media personalities that do exist in the real world.
Still, “Not Okay” doesn’t really have anything to say about them or this phenomenon. The issue is not about Danni being a likable character (for what it’s worth, while Joanna is nice, she’s not a particularly sympathetic character herself). But she should, at least eventually, grapple with the scope of her actions in a real way.
After Danni is found out, she loses the notoriety and gains — what? — a chance to perhaps rebuild her short-lived career. Meanwhile the Rowans of the world will likely have a whole new experience they have to unpack in their support groups.
On the other hand, the crux of Joanna’s storyline is her deep regret over everything she gains from her cancer narrative. A job, a new office, a centralized segment on the network, respect even from her tyrant of a boss Patricia (Jenifer Lewis), who she discovers has real-life cancer. She also experiences real regret about the human impact of her choice, something Danni never considers.
Joanna is in a perennial state of conflict over what her lie affords her — so much so that she comes clean about it on her own, while Danni is coerced to. Joanna takes responsibility for what she did and, regardless of how she is perceived, accepts the results.
This type of engagement with the larger themes of the story is what makes a compellingly flawed character. “Not Okay” presents a flawed character who capitalizes off something that only some of us resist achieving — veneration from millions of strangers that is based on a lie— and refuses to engage with the various conflicts that come with that. That, actually, is not okay.