To be a teenage girl is to be a tight coil of confused rage, a fact that “I Am Not Okay With This” both knows and depends upon. The new Netflix comedy tells the story of Sydney (Sophia Lillis), a seething Pennsylvania teen who first seems to be, as she tells us in a deadpan voiceover dictating the contents of her new diary, “a boring 17 year-old white girl.” But Sydney’s also grappling with a pair of particularly charged friendships, with bubbly Dina (Sofia Bryant) and eccentric Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), and the fact that she’s never quite dealt with the trauma of her father dying by suicide a year earlier. Sydney’s a volcano just waiting for the chance to blow — and when she does, through some sudden supernatural strength that takes her completely by surprise, it’s inevitably a startling catastrophe.
The series, based on Charles Forsman’s graphic novel and co-created by Christy Hall and “End of the F***ing World” producer Jonathan Entwistle, slots right into Netflix’s existing oeuvre of teen-focused shows. Its deliberately washed-out palette and retro aesthetic, for example, recall the calibrated vibe of “Sex Education,” while its mysterious paranormal activity in a Rust Belt town feels like a stray “Stranger Things” subplot. Lillis, an able actor who’s heretofore been relegated a supporting player, tackles Sydney’s frustrated fury in such a way that the moments when it gives way to her wide-eyed heartbreak can be very moving. She’s especially good opposite Aidan Wojtak-Hissong as her kid brother Liam and Oleff, her “It” co-star who turns in a funny and sneakily nuanced performance as the town’s resident oddball. The one dynamic that doesn’t work is, unfortunately, the one between Sydney and Dina. They’re supposedly so close that neither can make sense of whether it’s friendship or something more, but the writing doesn’t try too hard beyond insisting as much to convince the audience why that’s the case. Dina is nice and pretty, a combination that can certainly be enough to send a reluctantly hormonal teen like Sydney spiraling, but it would be far more convincing and compelling if Dina (also the only non-white person on the show) had more of a defined personality to get us even half as invested in her as Sydney.
This lackluster execution of a potentially interesting idea haunts “I’m Not Okay With This” in more ways than one. The two standout story twists — i.e. Sydney’s powers and understanding of her father’s death — develop too slowly given that the season only has seven episodes in which to explore them. As the series marches towards its climactic ending, it feels more like it’s running down a list of necessary beats rather than weaving them in naturally. The show kicks off when Sydney realizes that her anger motivates her chaotic telekinesis, but the timing is otherwise not very conducive to the other storylines it’s trying to serve, namely her struggling to fit in a town she moved to two years prior and clarify what she feels towards Dina, her avowed best friend who doesn’t seem to understand Sydney at all, powers or no. Too many times, Sydney’s voiceover tells us the things the series should be showing, a problem exacerbated by the fact that Sydney’s not exactly a sharp enough writer to justify indulging her retellings so much.
By the time the season ends, it does throw a few wild narrative curveballs our way that could prove more interesting in a second season. This first one, laden with potential and yet falling short of individual innovation, just takes too long to figure out its strengths as it works to get there.
“I Am Not Okay With This” premieres Wednesday, Feb. 26 on Netflix.