When a thing takes off on Netflix they tend to give you all you’d ever want of it, which is one way they keep a constant flow of newly produced or acquired material popping up on people’s homepage. Problem is it’s almost impossible to keep up with their additions, and eventually the steady stream of rom-coms, nostalgia machines, comedy specials, and reality shows start melding together. The particulars that separate one from the other gets lost in the shuffle, which is why I initially threw I Am Not Okay with This into their angsty teen bucket that I don’t much care about.
Turns out the particulars make it exactly my kind of thing: a girl developing mysterious superpowers, falling for her best friend, and trying to make sense of her father’s suicide. That was enough to spark my interest, and after settling in I found it’s one of those weird, slyly experimental products that can only exist in the brave new world of the internet.
Netflix being Netflix, there has to be some aspects that are comfortably familiar, and here it’s the knowing influence of innumerable teen tv shows and movies. Its opening shot of Sophia Lillis’ Sydney in a fancy dress covered in blood will have you going ‘okay Carrie’ while one episode is such a clear riff on The Breakfast Club that you may not register its clever subversion. No, the story of I Am Not Okay with This isn’t anything new, but like so much of the best content on streaming services, it’s the format that brings about interesting twists.
An oddball seven episodes long with individual lengths varying between 19 to 28 minutes, this is a series that embraces the flexibility of no time slots or commercials. Instead of hitting familiar beats with hooks to carry you through act, episode, or midseason breaks, I Am Not Okay splays out like a languid afternoon, often more concerned with feeling like a hangout than moving the plot forward.
Individual episodes are more like vignettes, glimpses of Sydney’s life as it sometimes literally explodes around her. This provides its own compelling pace, one that’s not really propulsive but does reward you for downing the whole season in one or two sittings. A more traditional TV show would be structured as a countdown to its opening flash forward, but instead this bumbles along as a teenager would, just trying to handle whatever problem pushes its way to the fore.
And Sydney’s problems are numerous, from testing her sexuality with her best friend Dina (Sofia Bryant) and new bud Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) to staying afloat in a family that’s about to sink into poverty and despair. Then there’s those bizarre moments of superhuman ability, ones that manifest during emotional high points and almost always cause some sort of destruction (these are framed impeccably to keep Sydney’s reaction to them centered, a nice touch).
Like any good superpower they are heavily metaphorical, here seemingly linked to struggles with depression and PTSD. If Sydney experiences any strong emotion then her powers are likely to put people in danger, and watching her flirt with letting that crush her into an isolated, numb life is truly distressing.
The brevity of the series could’ve easily caused this and other threads to be too lightly touched upon, but the casting of Lillis ensured nothing about Sydney would get shortchanged. Between this, the It movies, and the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects, Lillis has emerged as one of the most promising young actors around, having that magical ability to convey not just any emotion in the book but a muddled array of them at once. There’s good reason, apart from her red hair, that she was cast as the younger version of Amy Adams in Sharp Objects. She can match Adams’ ability to suck you into a moment with the flash of her eyes, which she utilizes here again and again as Sydney bounces from highs to lows.
Of course, she can’t save all the scripts’ faults, particularly when it leans too hard into teenage angst. The first line of the series is particularly rough, and having flipped through some of the graphic novel from Charles Forsman on which this is based, much of these problems seem to come from the source material. Jonathan Entwistle, who co-developed and directed all of I Am Not Okay, is a bit unclear about what to play up and what to cut back when adapting Forsman, particularly given the similar problems with their previous writer/adapter collaboration, The End of the F***ing World.
The other obvious and detrimental influence on I Am Not Okay is its Netflix kin Stranger Things, mostly in its attempts at a retro vibe. The series takes place in the modern day, yet VHS tapes get referenced as many times as texting. The high school scenarios it creates feels akin to my own fifteen years ago, right down to awkwardly falling for your female best friend and that feeling like a huge, shameful secret. And look, I love seeing my own experiences reflected as much as anyone, but is that really how high school is now?
Further throwing off the pastiche is its inability to settle on a period it’s creating nostalgia for. The queer plotline is straight out of my teenagedom, the tech references a little before, and the music choices way before. This creates not the nostalgia they’re aiming for but a sense of being adrift in time, which bleeds into the rest of the series’ slight opaqueness.
As much as I enjoy the hangout vibes, you do leave I Am Not Okay with This wanting just a bit more. A bit more answers, a bit more definition, a bit more time. I suppose that’s a great setup for more seasons, but with so many compelling things packed into this nimble offering, it’s a shame to have to qualify my enthusiasm. Hopefully more seasons come, ones that will fill out and pin down this world I desperately want to know all about.