“Not Okay” and Main Character Syndrome
By Sabrina Vetter
Do you like Danni? No? Well, you are not the only one, because neither do her co-workers, her boss, her crush, or anyone else for that matter. Not that there seem to be many people present in Danni’s life anyway when she is introduced at the beginning of Not Okay. As the character is depicted, there is good reason for this state of general aversion people have to Danni: in the first few minutes of Quinn Shephard’s film, the protagonist comes off as annoying, ignorant and aloof, showing no interest in the person opposite her if it isn’t for the chance of being popular. She does not respect people’s boundaries, regards her talents better suited for an area which she has no expertise in and only cares for the attention of cool people.
But just like any other person, Danni has another layer of existence. Despite her outward
abrasiveness, she knows she isn’t seen. She knows she is isolated. She knows she isn’t liked or
desired by those whose attention she craves for so much. She hides these insecurities under a layer
of false self-confidence, in which she follows what she considers the newest fashion trends (all of
them at the same time!) and a desire to be a writer, when she actually is a skilled photo editor at the
trendy New Yorker magazine Depravity. Her wish to move outward instead of upward in her job
seems irrational, her need for attention by everyone she deems worthy reveals itself to be a daunting
task. But, in her desire to be recognized for anything, in her desire to connect, in her desire to be popular, Danni’s life has shifted to online spaces long before the film starts. It is here where she finds her uneventful life contrasted with the glitz and glamour of influencers, whose everyday existence seems so much more interesting than hers – at least on the surface from which she can witness.
Isolated, drugged out and over-self-medicated she falls for the promise of a better existence
conveyed through the fake reality of influencer-life. As the more media-literate Insta users know, the
most hard-working influencers skillfully filter, photoshop, edit and stage the images they share of
their fashion shots, make up hauls, family holidays and what not. Danni however preys on those who
believe that what we see on social media is a 100% real. Instead of continuing to just follow
unreliable narrators such as Caroline Calloway, she becomes a scammer herself: pretending to
participate in writers retreat in Paris, she photoshops herself in images of famous and not so famous
corners in the city of love, while never actually leaving her Brooklyn home. From here on boldly
and rightfully criticised for its lax treatment of real recent historical events, Shephard goes full dark
comedy. After a terrorist attack takes place in Paris (the film excuses itself from referencing the 2015
terrorist attacks in the French capital or the Charlie Hebdo shooting the same year but goes for a fake
incident), Danni is expected to return to New York as a purported survivor of the traumatic events.
Instead of coming clean that she never went further from her Bushwick apartment than necessary to take a few quick shots of herself wearing a red beret, she decides to continue the lie. As line after line
is crossed, Danni becomes enthralled by the attention she receives from media and people for her
emotional strength following a traumatic experience. She eventually finds herself in a trauma
support group where she befriends Rowan, a school shooting survivor and an activist for stricter US
gun laws, whose real emotional responses to her past experiences serve as a blueprint for Danni on
how to continue her lies. It spirals out of of control from here. Desperately seeking Insta-fame and the red hearts, she has made the leap beyond the point of no return, where forgiveness for her actions
are no longer an option. Not that Danni cares: with her new-found fame as the face of tragedy getting the best of her, she is unable to stop.
Not Okay doesn’t fear big themes, such as social media, mental health, narcissism, isolation and privilege. In its representation of how a dire need for popularity can be at a center of a person’s life who has long lost quite a bit of a touch with reality, the film is positively ruthless. Also, in its depiction of its protagonist, it is quite daring. Despite the fact that Danni is mentally ill, she is not someone the audience is supposed to root for. Complaining about her Bushwick apartment, coming from an affluent home, navigating life extremely in an extremely tone-deaf way, believing that being intrusive (instead of being humble) will make you friends, Danni is, as the film puts it, a “privileged white girl who thinks she is the main character”. Unsurprisingly, the film doesn’t ask for her redemption. Rather it wants to steer us into the direction of how a desire to be seen coupled with the unlimited attention social media can give, will lead to downfall. An impressive number of likes and followers on social media does not result in any kind of improvement to your life outside the internet, especially if you have gotten rid of any semblance of common sense along the way. And this lack of improvement also applies to a person’s character. It is hard to feel for Danni, since her horrible decisions are just further underlined by her continuation of this false narrative. Writing a piece (finally she is a writer) about the fake story of her survival inspired by Rowan’s emotional experiences, she becomes a trend: HashtagNotOkay. It is all she ever wanted and it is all a lie. As a biting dark comedy about how online life, its trends and performativity can be valued above the personal well-being of others and the self, Shepherd’s film is worth the watch. And one has to give credit to lead actor Zoey Deutch who convincingly portrays Danni’s complicated character. She switches from real sadness to phony internet girl within seconds.
Obviously making a film about a person who is the villain of her own story isn’t easy. How far can
you go with the unlikability of your main character? Not Okay makes some gutsy choices in its approach to critiquing social media, however once the audience tries to understand Danni and her way of thinking, the unevenness in the representation of the main character becomes clear. Shepherd, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, is unsure who she wants her main character to be: a mentally ill woman who puts on a happy-go-lucky façade of while trying to connect to the people around her in the most clumsy ways or a sociopath lost in the oblivion of online life whose attention-seeking pampered self has made her go full-narcissist. While there are many aspects presented that make sense for the audience to realize how Danni spiraled out of control, we just know too little about how she got there. We can only guess why Danni desperately seeks attention; how it manifested in a desire to be seen so badly that she not only fakes surviving a terrorist attack and takes on the publicity that comes with it but also befriends a survivor of a school shooting whose traumatic experiences are very real and very much still shape her day-to-day. Danni is exquisitely cruel but why and how does not come together for one. Since she has enough confidence to ask for a writer’s job and live religiously through colorful attire, why can’t she bring this confidence to other spheres of life? Also, one could argue that Danni has lost all sense of reality in a sort of parasocial relationship with online life, but at the same time we know that Danni is very much aware that she is not fine. There is a point in the film where Danni isn’t lying for once: during one of the trauma support group’s meetings, she finds herself confronted with being asked about how she experiences the aftermath of the events in Paris. She simply answers “numb”. It is in these moments that she is telling the truth. Yes, she feels numb and she knows it. However, she does not feel numb due to experiencing terrorist attacks, but because her life
is void of so many things. So what is it? Has she lost grip of reality? Is she just ignorant? Or is she
highly aware and just really, really desperate? Or is she really so evil that she ruthlessly re-writes
reality by making some else’s trauma her own without looking back? I know multiple things can be
true at the same time, but I can't make sense of it. You will just have to use your imagination here.
This unevenness found in the main character also shows how Not Okay can’t make up its mind
about what it wants to be. A biting satire about white privilege? A study on mental health? A
commentary on the toxicity of social media? A mediation on confidence, albeit a misplaced and bloated one at that? Not Okay takes on many tasks, and despite its many attempts to complete them, it is still hard to follow. In the end, Not Okay does good on its choice of dark-humored storytelling, calling out privilege, ignorance and influencer culture in the process. But due to some uneven choices, and maybe putting too much on its plate in the end, it wastes quite a bit of the criticism it aims for. However, as a study of “main character”-syndrome it delivers most obviously. To be seen is better to be not seen at all. No matter how cruel or self-deluded you are.