I Am Not Okay with This review: A must-see
Laurence Boyce | On 25, Feb 2020
Everything most of us wanted to learn about growing up in America came from the TV and movies. Most of us have never set foot in an American high school but thanks to teachers such as John Hughes, Ferris Bueller and the cast of (the still sorely missed) Freaks and Geeks, we are well versed in the hierarchy of the jocks, the bullying of geeks, the cliques of girls and the hard-faced teachers who seem to do little apart from grow red in the face and place people in detention. Yes, we have an intimate knowledge of the complex social structures of American teenage life and the general vibe of any school located in the US – which probably says as much about the pervasiveness of American culture as it does about its preoccupations. Based on Charles Forsnam’s self-published comic book, I Am Not Okay with This is ostensibly another in a long line of shows that focuses on these trials and tribulations, but while it ticks all the clichéd boxes – awkward teen, burgeoning sexuality, overbearing jocks – and adds a soupçon of the fantastical, I Am Not Okay with This is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Sydney (Sophia Lillis) is an average teen in an average area of rural Pittsburgh who is happening to have a tremendously crappy time of it. Her father died tragically in the months before – leaving nothing but an awkward relationship between Syd and her mother (Kathleen Rose Perkins) and a slightly better one with her younger brother Liam (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong) – while her best friend, Dina (Sofia Bryant), has decided to start dating Brad (Richard Ellis), who Syd charitably describes as “the biggest douche in our entire high school”. While a burgeoning friendship with the fellow misfit Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) gives Syd a modicum of joy among the general sludge of teenage and high-school life, she also begins to realise that strange things keep happening at the most inconvenient and frustrating of times. She doesn’t really know what’s going on – with herself and everyone else – but there’s one thing for sure: she’s definitely not OK with this.
Much like Stranger Things – whose producer Shawn Levy also works on this show – I Am Not Okay with This wears its nostalgic influences on its sleeve both stylistically and in-universe. Inspirations such as John Hughes – Episode 5, titled Another Day In Paradise, basically acts as an extended homage to The Breakfast Club – 80s music (with Prefab Sprout’s The King Of Rock and Roll and Echo and the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon making almost obligatory appearances) and, when things start to get a little more weird, the early works of Stephen King are all majorly apparent. This carries over into the aesthetics of the show. While the show is hinted at as taking place in the modern-day – both a smartphone and a laptop make an appearance – all the characters decide to use cassette players, while Stan is quite happy to keep a collection of VHS tapes. Add in a colour palette of dreamlike, hazy yellows and the aforementioned 80s soundtrack (alongside a great original soundtrack by Blur member Graham Coxon) and nostalgia runs through the show’s veins.
Of course, lazy nostalgia is often the bane of modern culture, yet I Am Not Okay with This avoids the laziness as well as – despite certain stylistic similarities – managing not to be a complete rip-off of Stranger Things. Indeed, there’s a playful and knowing element to everything here that skirts the line between earnest and mischievous. Certainly, the characters themselves often seem painfully aware of the clichés and teen archetypes and veer between exhausted acquiescence to, and active subversion of, the roles they are expected to play – the show achieves an almost perfect balance of genuine emotion and arch meta-humour.
Much of this balance is achieved by some truly stupendous performances. Sophia Lillis is astounding as Syd, a cynical and clever girl who is plagued with confusion and blessed with a caustic wit. With almost every single shot of the 7 episodes containing her, it’s fair to say that her low-key charisma and willingness to expose a painful vulnerability are a large reason for the show’s success. But one shouldn’t ignore equally good performances from the likes of Oleff and Bryant that also both subvert and reinforce expectations.
The genre trappings of the show – which become more apparent as it heads towards its conclusion – are also deftly handled, with the show lampshading genre tropes while keeping things genuinely suspenseful. And for all its earnest drama, there are plenty of moments of laugh-out-loud humour all contained within a remarkably lean narrative (each of the seven episodes clock in with an average of around 20 minutes)
Those who liked The End of the F**king World (which shares producer and director Jonathan Entwhistle and is also based on a comic by Forsman) will find much to like here, although those who were put off by the other show’s streak of nihilism will be pleasantly surprised. While there is plenty of angst and darkness there’s also a robust playfulness that is a joy to behold. Certainly those who would originally avoid the show because it seems clichéd would be advised to keep their prejudices at bay and check out a show that is funny, gripping and often surprising. With a conclusion that promises a myriad of different directions in which the show could go, I Am Not Okay with This is a delight that may just become one of the hits of the year.
I Am Not Okay with is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription, from 26th February 2020.