‘I Am Not Okay with This’ Review: Strong Coming-of-Age Story, Weak Super-Powered Subplot

     February 28, 2020

At first glance, Netflix’s new super-powered teen series I Am Not Okay with This seems to be an obvious companion to Stranger Things. Not only do the two shows share producers and feature young girls with mystifying powers, but I Am Not Okay with This also stars two of the child actors of the IT films (Sophia Lillis and Wyatt Oleff, who co-starred in the blockbuster films alongside Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard), has a distinctly 80s vibe (despite its contemporary setting), and contains a pointed Stephen King nod within its opening moments: a shell-shocked Sydney (Lillis) walks down an abandoned street in a white, spaghetti-strap dress, completely drenched in blood. It doesn’t take a devoted King scholar to note the Carrie parallel.

Yet even by the end of that first scene — in which Syd, in voiceover, tells her diary to “go f*ck yourself” — it quickly becomes clear that I Am Not Okay with This is, at most, a distant, several-times-removed cousin to Stranger Things and the works of King. A much closer tonal sibling for I Am Not Okay with This, despite its complete lack of supernatural shenanigans, would be The End of the F*cking World, also from creator and director Jonathan Entwistle and based on a graphic novel by Charles Forsman. Both series feature off-putting teens in extraordinary circumstances and have an irreverent, almost jarring sense of humor, but most importantly, both series use those extraordinary circumstances to effectively explore challenging mental health issues including grief, PTSD, and depression.

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Image via Netflix

I Am Not Okay with This follows 17-year-old Syd, whose attempts to successfully navigate high school following the recent death of her father rival the world-threatening stakes of any Avengers movie. Snarky and introverted, Syd can’t seem to figure out how to interact with other kids her age–not that she really wants to–with the exception of her best friend, Dina (Sofia Bryant). Unfortunately, Dina recently got herself a boyfriend, insufferable jock Brad (Richard Ellis), which means she’s been spending a lot more time with him and a lot less time with Sydney. Uncertain how to cope with her complex feelings of jealousy and self-doubt, Syd befriends her off-kilter neighbor, Stanley (Oleff)–initially described by Syd as “the master of zero f*cks,” although, as we quickly learn, Stan actually cares a lot about several things–the only person who seems to take a genuine interest in her besides Dina.

Through it all, Sydney is forced to reckon with the alarming discovery that she is suddenly in possession of superpowers that allow her to move things without touching them … and often against her will. Unlike countless other superhero origin stories, Syd has no idea how to control her powers, which seem directly tied to her emotions. Lots of people want to break things when they get upset; Sydney literally demolishes them with her mind.

With Dina preoccupied with Brad, the only person Syd feels like she can entrust with her secret is Stan, who immediately sets about trying to interpret her problem through the familiar language of comics. Unfortunately, Syd’s condition defies an easy comic book diagnosis and montage-friendly mastery. Instead, her abilities remain stubbornly tied to her most negative and volatile emotions, and much like the rage, embarrassment, and shame that tends to trigger them, they seem impossible for Syd to control, prevent, or harness in any useful way.

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Image via Netflix

As with The End of the F*cking World, I Am Not Okay with This seems much more concerned with what its central character is feeling rather than what she can do, and her powers work far better as an analog for her emotional turmoil than as a focal point unto themselves. The times when Syd becomes overwhelmed, loses control, and wrecks the things around her don’t feel like cool displays of power, but rather an all-too-real metaphor for the types of relatable, real-world mental health struggles that can lead to… well, becoming overwhelmed, losing control, and wrecking the things around us.

This is both the show’s biggest strength, and its greatest weakness. So much of what Syd is going through feels accessible to anyone who has ever wrestled with family tension, navigated a complicated friendship, fallen in love, experienced an unrequited crush, or suffered a tremendous loss. The series’ tendency to illustrate those moments of heightened emotion by Syd literally razing the things around her to the ground are an effective way of showing that this sort of stuff–especially as a teenager–really can feel like the end of the world.

Yet even as Syd’s inadvertent displays of power tend to emphasize whatever brand of emotional baggage she is wrestling with at the time–whether that’s her grief, anger, and confusion over her father’s death, her frustration with Dina and Brad’s relationship, or her own complex struggle with identity and self-image–the supernatural elements feel almost tacked on to I Am Not Okay with This, paling in comparison to the grounded and far more compelling teen drama playing out on screen.

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Image via Netflix

It is perhaps because of the background nature of the super-powered subplot that while Sydney’s social arc moves forward with driving urgency in every episode, her superpowers tend to feel like they’re just spinning their wheels. For one episode after another, Syd gets upset about something happening in her life, loses control and lashes out with her powers, then panics and attempts to cover up what she’s done, refusing to seek help or let anyone but Stan in on her secret, and hoping no one will notice.

It’s effective as a metaphor for how destructive unaddressed mental health issues can be, and how hard it can be to seek help. It’s less effective as a storyline about actual superpowers.

As counterintuitive as it seems, throughout most of the season, I Am Not Okay with This seems to have no idea of how to actually make Syd’s powers even half as interesting as everything else going on in her life. Instead of feeling like it’s building to anything, the show recycles the same basic supernatural storyline from one episode to the next, remaining frustratingly stagnant while every other element of the plot moves along at an engaging clip. Ultimately, Syd’s powers serve as both the climax and the coda to the season, but those story beats don’t feel earned, like a record that keeps skipping at the beginning of the song, then jumps straight to the end.

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Image via Netflix

However, despite the show’s uncertain fumbling of its hook, there’s still plenty to enjoy in I Am Not Okay with This. On the page, Syd comes off as largely unlikable character, but Lillis imbues her with such a strong sense of vulnerability and longing that I was able to easily connect with her, despite her many flaws and bad calls. Oleff is a definite high point (one particularly delightful scene of Stan dancing around his basement to Prefab Sprout’s “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” seems like it was created with the sole purpose of giving the internet a bountiful supply of GIF-able material), stealing pretty much every scene he’s in and displaying some truly formidable comedic chops. Kathleen Rose Perkins and Aidan Wojtak-Hissong as Syd’s mother and younger brother, respectively, bring texture and nuance to Syd’s world in their limited screen time. And Bryant and Ellis sell the heck out of the loyal, romantic Dina and the entitled, increasingly sinister Brad, elevating them beyond their archetypical Cool Girl and Dumb Jock introductions, and turning their initially paint-by-numbers relationship into something a lot more layered and interesting.

And while it’s never really explained why every part of I Am Not Okay with This–from the costumes to the music selection to the set design–feels pulled directly from the 80s, despite its characters’ uses of smartphones, USB drives, and Instagram, the overall aesthetic is still a lot of fun. Sure, maybe the show is grasping a little too hard at nostalgia the show’s target audience doesn’t have, but (perhaps because Lillis and Oleff have already starred in one familiar 80s-set supernatural tale) it doesn’t feel as out of place as it probably should. It seems a little quirky and weird, but in a good way. Kind of like Stan.

Plus, while the supernatural plotline never truly finds its wings, all of the plain old natural storylines have no trouble taking off. I Am Not Okay with This never really figured out how to effectively build tension around Syd’s abilities, but it had no trouble pulling me to the edge of my seat any time it dealt with Syd’s confusing relationships with Dina and Stan, her dynamic with her mom, or her questions about her dad.

Image via Netflix

Fortunately and unfortunately, those elements, and not the super-powered ones, make up the bulk of the season, delivering an eminently fun and watchable show that, at the same time, never fully delivers on its premise. As a coming-of-age dark teen comedy, I Am Not Okay with This totally works, delivering engaging characters, smart humor, and an immensely talented young cast. But as a coming-of-age dark comedy about a teenage girl with superpowers, it never fully finds its footing … which is especially concerning given the setup for Season 2, which leans heavily on the show’s weakest link. Still, considering that I Am Not Okay with This hits far more often than it misses, if a clunky superpower plotline is what it takes to get me another season with these characters, then I guess I am okay with that after all.

Rating: ★★★★ Very good

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