Hulu’s Not Okay serves up a dark and fun version of a social media scammer

Writer-director Quinn Shephard begins her dark comedy Not good with a warning about things like “an unlikable female protagonist” and title cards throughout the film attempt to push back against the idea that there will be anything redeemable about lead character Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch ). Shephard may be protesting a little too much since Danni’s terrible behavior is often humanized as a manifestation of his pathological need, but Not good is still a stern rebuke of social media redemption and a rewarding character study of an oblivious narcissist.

Not good opens with a montage of social media hatred for Danni before flashing back two months to tell how Danni became the most despised person on the internet, at least for a little while. A photo editor for a magazine called Depravity, Danni lives the kind of privileged media life in New York that many people only dream of, but she’s unsatisfied with a position that doesn’t allow her to share the full range of her creativity. Danni really wants to be a writer, but her personal essays are full of the self-pity narcissism of a woman who grew up never knowing adversity.

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Danni also really wants to impress his colleague Colin (Dylan O’Brien, channeling Pete Davidson), whose job at Depravity is unclear, but who has amassed a substantial following as a social media influencer promoting weed. Desperate to get Colin’s attention—or just to get him to remember her name—she tells him she’s been accepted to a writers’ retreat in Paris. This instant little lie quickly spirals out of control as Danni misses work and uses her graphic design skills to post fake photos of herself at various Paris landmarks. More importantly, Colin finally follows her online.

It’s all still pretty harmless until Danni wakes up one morning to learn that there’s been a terrorist attack at various landmarks in Paris, and suddenly his supposed vacation has turned into international news. Co-workers and family members frantically reach out to see if Danni is safe, and for a moment she considers confessing. It’s there that Not good takes the dark twist that makes Danni a truly unlikable protagonist. She doubles down on her lie, posting somber updates about narrowly escaping attacks and even blending into a crowd of people on a flight home from Paris so she can be captured by cameras from hurry.

Almost nothing on Not good would work if it weren’t for Deutch’s delicately balanced performance, revealing Danni’s deep self-loathing and insecurity while showing his vapid obsession with image and fame. Welcomed home as a hero, Danni finally writes a Depravity article, and her reflection on her alleged experiences is spawning a viral hashtag of people admitting their own authentic traumas and emotional issues, declaring themselves “not okay.” In this way, Danni’s journey resembles the main character’s arc in Dear Evan Hansenanother lonely person who takes false credit for being close to tragedy.

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Not good is more prone to making its protagonist look bad than Dear Evan Hansen was, especially unlike teenage activist Rowan (Mia Isaac), who Danni befriends at a support group. Drawing inspiration from real-life survivors and activists, Rowan is a school shooting survivor who now speaks out against gun violence. To Danni, however, she’s just another famous person to use for weight gain, and Danni even co-opts some of Rowan’s advice for the essay that launches her viral fame.

There are moments of honest connection in the friendship between Danni and Rowan, allowing Shephard to bring out more sides of his ever-unlikable protagonist and making the inevitable revelation of the truth all the more devastating. Not good sometimes struggles with its balance of tones, alternating between serious emotion and sarcastic satire. His social media observations, including Kendall Jenner’s multiple jokes, aren’t exactly groundbreaking. Not good never gets as dark as something like Bobcat Goldthwait’s cult classic The World’s Best Dad, another story of a frustrated writer who rejoices by taking credit for the pain of others. But he also never goes for easy answers or lets Danni off the hook for his monstrous behavior.

Shephard wrote, directed, produced, edited and starred in his first feature film in 2017 Blame when she was just 20, and she clearly has an understanding of Gen-Z culture in a way that a filmmaker from another generation might not. Not good is exaggerated for satirical purposes, but Danni isn’t far from the kind of scammers and con artists who are exposed on social media seemingly all the time. Sure, she’s not lovable, but she’s also human, and that’s what makes her worth watching throughout. Not goodis the cathartic and uncompromising ending.

Not Okay premieres Friday, July 29 on Hulu.

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