Watching Quinn Shephard’s sophomore film, Not Okay, which premiered over the weekend on Hulu, is like watching a train wreck: an undeniable disaster, but one that’s impossible to look away from.
The film opens with a content warning about “flashing lights, themes of trauma, and an unlikeable female protagonist”—the last of which the director included with a bit of a wink. But it’s very true: The central character, Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch), is downright awful to the point of being difficult to watch as she claws her way toward fame and social media clout by faking having survived a terrorist attack in Paris. She has close to zero redeeming qualities. By the end of the film, the complete absence of any kind of redemption arc for Danni feels deserved and satisfying.
Recent reviews of the dark satire drama have honed in on its sharp insight around the toxicity of social media, the pitfalls of the ever-booming attention economy, and influencer culture writ large. In a desire to swap her unfulfilling job as a photo editor for a writing position at the magazine Depravity and to get the attention of her crush and coworker, weed influencer Colin (Dylan O’Brien), Danni floods her Instagram feed with Photoshopped images of her time at an imaginary Parisian writer’s retreat, transforming her mediocre life into a social media sensation overnight, a la Emily in Paris. Trouble strikes—or rather, implodes—when a series of bombings hit Paris, and Danni unknowingly posts a photo of herself in front of the Arc de Triomphe minutes before the attack, all from the safety of her Bushwick apartment.
At its core, rather than an insatiable hunger to be “seen” or “known” by the outside world, Danni’s desperate chase for attention is an attempt to right a self-perceived social wrong: As a skinny, rich, conventionally attractive white girl, the lack of attention that Danni receives—from her coworkers, from boys, and from her non-existent social media followers—is incongruent with her expectation to be desired, protected, even worshipped. Her friendless, attention-less reality is a disruption of her fantasy of self importance; Danni believes she should be celebrated just for existing. And she quickly realizes that any threat to the sanctity of a white woman—whether through physical threat or imagined harm—is an easy, surefire way to capture society’s attention.
After the news of the bombings breaks, instead of calling her own bluff and shutting down her production, Danni leans further into her twisted bit, wearing the title of “survivor” like a bedazzled badge of honor. And oh, how the masses oblige: Almost overnight, after she stages an airport arrival at JFK with the real survivors of the attack, Danni garners more compassion than ever before, even landing a “tell-all” feature with Depravity, deprived of her influencer era no more. More than people love gore, they love a white woman martyr, an American sweetheart to mourn.
Most sickening is how Danni remorselessly co-opts the trauma of others, particularly Rowan (Mia Isaac), a young school-shooting-survivor-turned-anti-gun-activist, whom she meets at a bomb survivor support group. Intoxicated by the viral potential of her story, Danni literally steals words out of Rowan’s mouth—the most show-stopping display of white women copying women of color for clout—and starts an online movement akin to #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter with the hashtag, #NotOkay.
While Danni is certainly a caricature of a problematic, attention-seeking white woman, and the film is a satire, the film clearly draws inspiration from a few real-life women. Pre-social media foremother Tania Head famously lied about having survived the 9/11 attacks, when in reality, she wasn’t even in the country when the Twin Towers collapsed. For years, Head gained social capital from her faux-woes, and even became a prominent member of Gerry Bogacz’s World Trade Center Survivors’ Network.
Caroline Calloway, a famous online influencer and accused scammer who has since fallen from grace, actually makes a cameo in the film as herself, leading an “Online Shaming” support group—which is objectively hilarious. At one point deemed the “Most Hated Girl on the Internet” after her long time friend published an exposé in The Cut detailing her alter ego as the microcelebrity’s ghostwriter, Calloway’s participation in the film may suggest that she has learned from her mistakes, or at the very least, is willing to poke fun at them. Is this Calloway’s redemption arc—appearing vaguely self-aware in a satire about shitty white women on social media? Or is this just another vehicle through which she can get money and attention, even at her own expense?
Danni, as I already mentioned, does not get any kind of redemption arc, and that’s perhaps my favorite aspect of the film. No one accepts her apology. We don’t see her do the work to educate herself and understand what she did wrong. She doesn’t devote her life to real advocacy. She sits in the audience sobbing as actual gun violence survivor Rowan completely, eloquently rips her a new asshole at a speaking event, and then she walks out of the theater unnoticed. Perfect.