Aspiring journalist Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch), the insecure villain at the center of writer-director Quinn Shephard’s scattershot comedy “Not Okay,” dresses the part of a contemporary Gloria Steinem, poaching the activist’s oversized glasses and face-framing blond streaks while adding her own modern accessories: rainbow-colored nails and jewelry, with a decked-out smartphone glued to her hand. The look screams for attention. The problem is, even if Danni could manage to get noticed at her hyper-cool and competitive magazine, she’s got nothing valuable to say.
When Steinem was at this age in her career, she hustled to write an exposé of the inner workings of the Playboy Club. Danni believes, somewhat accurately, that today’s readers are more interested in writers who expose their own traumas. Alas, she doesn’t have any. The upper-middle-class Manhattanite whines to her editor (Negin Farsad) that she even had the lousy luck to miss 9/11. (Her parents, played by Brennan Brown and Embeth Davidtz, had shortsightedly taken the family on a cruise.)
To impress her office crush Colin (Dylan O’Brien), a callow pothead-turned-globe-trotting influencer with a grotty Pete Davidson-esque charisma, Danni concocts a phony invitation to a writers retreat in Paris. Surrounded by junk food wrappers in her sloppy Bushwick bedroom, she photoshops herself into a picture of the Arc de Triomphe — and uploads the photo five minutes before a deadly bomb explodes at the site. Trapped in a lie, Danni rebrands herself as a terrorism survivor. Danni’s rewards for lying seem insubstantial: digital hearts, retweets and, at their most tangible, a free tooth whitening kit. Yet, Shephard has just enough empathy to see their overall effect on Danni as Pavlovian, a steady stream of social media acclaim that’s like pellets to a starving rat.
As the story is lightly framed as a flashback, it’s clear from the beginning that Danni’s flirtation with faux disaster will end in her own very real ruination. An online commenter in an opening montage blasts her as “worse than Hitler.” Even the protagonist’s own film starts with a trigger warning that she’s unlikeable.
Thankfully, Deutch is intensely clued into her character’s feverish wavelength. Her Danni is a depressive so hopped up on mood-stabilizers that she projects a smiley sunniness at once bright and unnervingly cold. She’s not a manipulative mastermind. (She’s too self-obsessed to even bother anticipating what others might think.) Instead, the people she encounters charitably interpret the desperate gleam in her eye as shock. How numb she must be, they tell themselves, that she can barely describe the attack.
When Shephard steps inside Danni’s imagination of the blast, she makes a joke of filling the scene with Parisian caricatures, including a très cliché mime. However, Shephard should have restrained herself from clumsily inserting her own stock New York stereotype: an unhoused woman (Tamara Della Anderson) who exists in the film only for unfunny reaction shots meant to underscore the privilege behind Danni’s superficial problems.
Shephard jabs well-placed elbows at modern day media celebrity, where the public’s attention veers in an instant from tutting about death to applauding as Danni does goat yoga. The film’s portrait of a serious journalist — a queer androgyne named Harper (Nadia Alexander) — hungers to take Danni down to reassert her own primacy as the outlet’s foremost churner of Ruth Bader Ginsburg hagiography. Meanwhile, as the tension ratchets, Pierre-Philippe Côté’s score leans on disquieting choral music that sounds like a hymnal for the damned.
The film’s macabre sense of humor dares to creep quite close to going off the rails. When an unassuming middle-aged man (Kirk White) in Danni’s support group introduces himself as an attendee of the 2017 Ariana Grande suicide attack that killed 22 fans at a concert in Manchester, England, the pause momentarily seems like an invitation for a silently comic double-take, perhaps even a giggle.
For balance, Shephard smartly includes a grieving teenager named Rowan (Mia Isaac) who survived a high school shooting and now channels her pain into waging a personal crusade against the NRA gun lobby. Rowan is brave, talented, vulnerable and, yes, social media famous — everything Danni aspires to be. Isaac, a talented young actor commanding attention in only her second screen role, reveals the pressure Rowan endures as a figurehead: her reserve around strangers, her nervous breathing before a speech, the faraway place she goes in her head during active shooter drills at her new school. It’s a marvelous performance that proves the film’s point: Nothing is more compelling than authenticity.