Producers: Brad Weston and Caroline Jaczko Director: Quinn Shephard Screenplay: Quinn Shephard Cast: Zoey Deutch, Mia Isaac, Nadia Alexander, Embeth Davidtz, Karan Soni, Dylan O’Brien, Negin Farsad, Tia Dionne Hodge, Brennan Brown, Sarah Yarkin, Kirk White and Dash Perry Distributor: Hulu/Searchlight Pictures
Even if you’re not shocked to learn that everything put up on social media isn’t necessarily the truth, you’ll probably find that while Quinn Shephard’s movie about an online posting gone radically wrong may stumble toward the close, along the way it delivers some solid chuckles—along with a serious message, of course.
It’s propelled by the exuberant lead performance of Zoey Deutch, on screen pretty constantly as Danni Sanders, whose desperation to achieve a measure of celebrity takes an unexpected turn. Danni, a scatterbrained child of bourgeois privilege, is a photo editor at a web magazine called Depravity, no less. Wanting to raise her public profile, she pitches inane ideas for stories to her editor Susan (Negin Farsad)—like a piece about why she’s discontened because she missed being a part of a generation-molding event like 9/11, since she was unlucky enough to be off on a family cruise at the time and lost no friends in the tragedy.
Understandably dismissed by Susan, Danni blows off nerdy colleagues like doting Kevin (Karan Soni), whom she deems unworthy of her attention, while pining to be recognized by the site’s flashy, popular druggie guru Colin (Dylan O’Brien). Despondent, she decides she might attract more viewers to her personal blog by going on a trip and posting photos of her travels. But since she can’t afford to really go, she uses Photoshop to post a phony account of a sojourn in Paris for a writer’s retreat, and though she’s still stuck in her Brooklyn apartment, it attracts followers and gives her a boost as a would-be influencer.
But while she’s supposedly eating baguettes in the City of Light, Paris is struck by coordinated terrorist attacks, and she has to alter her storyline to fit the new circumstances. Her posts become more imaginary and detailed, drawing ever-more watchers, and she “returns” home to the embrace of her parents, concerned Judith (Embeth Davidtz) and blubbering Harold (Brennan Brown), and a rapturous reception from the Depravity staff, including Susan and Colin, the former interested in more quasi-heroic stories and the latter in collaborative possibilities. The only fly in the ointment is sharp-eyed Harper (Nadia Alexander), an intensely serious colleague who’s always looked on Danni as an empty striver and, doubtful of her whole tale, is on the lookout for any slips she might make.
Meanwhile at Susan’s suggestion Danni joins a support group led by sympathetic Linda (Tia Dionne Hodge). It includes Charles (Kirk White), a nebbish traumatized by a concert shooting, but the person she decides to approach is Rowan (Mia Isaac), an activist for gun control who survived a school shooting and has amassed a large following. Danni’s motives are hardly pure—she intends profiting from Rowan’s celebrity to increase her own—and succeeds only too well by coopting her insights for an article promoting a hashtag, #IAmNotOkay, that quickly goes viral as the tool of anyone who feels a sense of pain or grievance. It brings her the notice she craves even as a genuine bond builds with Rowan and Danni, gradually moving her away from her appalling self-absorption.
Of course her success can’t last, as we’re shown at the very beginning of the picture, with a montage of abusive postings attacking Danni as the worst person in the world: social media is as quick to take away as to give. But after juggling the strands of unearned success with the seeds of preordained disaster pretty well for two-thirds of the movie, Shephard’s touch becomes less assured in the last act, and “Not Okay” concludes on a muffled note.
You can imagine this basic plot as a high-school comedy from the eighties about an unpopular girl who feigns some sort of personal crisis to make classmate like her, refitted for today’s social-media, influencer-obsessed world. The refashioning is hardly brilliant—the targets are easy and the dialogue less than inspired—but it’s helped by Deutch, who has an uncanny ability to make Danni hard to hate even as you deplore what she’s doing, and by Isaac, who makes up for her strident recent debut in “Don’t Make Me Go” with a turn that has a ring of real sincerity and reticence that act to counterbalance Danni’s obtuseness and audacity. This is basically a two-character piece, though the almost unrecognizable O’Brien draws a colorful, if obvious, caricature of the kind of preening nonentity Danni wants to be.
Colorful is also an apt description of the film’s technical side, marked by flashy production and costume design by Jason Singleton and Sarah Laux, bright cinematography by Robby Baumgartner, a mostly bubbly score by Pierre-Philippe Côté (which of course makes use of some pop songs) and spiffy editing by Mollie Goldstein that, naturally, incorporates lots of whiz-bang montages.
The visual pizzazz, animated by Deutch’s effervescent performance, carries the uneven movie for a while, but Shephard’s inability to contrive a last act clever enough to avoid heavy-handed moralizing is deflating.