“Not okay,” “I love that for you,” and our toxic relationship with trauma stories

This article contains spoilers for Not Okay.

Admit it: Part of the twisted pleasure we got from watching “American Idol” came from all the throwbacks that ultimately got contestants like Fantasia Barrino belting out “Summertime” flawlessly. Similarly, we find the expansive list of afflictions, surgeries and personal defeats endured by Olympians like Allyson Felix just as captivating to listen to as the dramatic sports commentators rattle them off ahead of their medal wins.

We live for the drama of all that people must overcome to get to the point where we see them on TV or follow them on social media. We click, we like, we prefer – we buy into her whole thing. Because we’re a culture that loves a good sob story.

Or maybe it’s that we’re enjoying a good comeback.

Either way, it makes sense that recent screen narratives would delve into what that fascination says about us, and more interestingly, what happens when the public figure capitalizes on that interest. Sometimes screenwriters take a very thoughtful approach to this and actually challenge their protagonists, as in the case of Showtime’s I Love That for You. But sometimes we get something like writer-director Quinn Shephard’s new Hulu movie, Not Okay, which premieres July 29.

To be fair, the mere synopsis of “Not Okay” makes it one of those hate watches people often love to loathe that end up getting sequels or second seasons.

A young, burly, straight, white cis woman (Zoey Deutch) feels so out of the ordinary at the eclectic online magazine she works at that she concocts a traumatic story about being a survivor so she can be appreciated and loved – in the same way that, in her opinion, some of her black, transgender and/or disabled colleagues do.

From left: Kirk White, Zoey Deutch and Mia Isaac in the film
From left: Kirk White, Zoey Deutch and Mia Isaac in the film Not Okay.

Photo by Nicole Rivelli; courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Ultimately, of course, disaster ensues. But first, Shephard leaves the audience flinching for a full hour or so after Danni Sanders (German), a journalist, mind you, concocted a personal essay about how he narrowly escaped a Paris bombing. In fact, she’s never been to the City of Lights.

Where does she get such vivid details of what such trauma actually feels like? Of course not from personal experience. Danni is the type of person who lives in an absurdly large city apartment with a meager salary as a journalist, whose parents are always there to help. She’s not one who’s used to even a little inconvenience.

So Danni goes to a support group where, wait for it, she bumps into and befriends a black girl named Rowan (Mia Isaac), a victim of a school shooting. She listens to her story and co-opts her pain, then turns it into an article full of fabricated experiences.

It’s about here that one begins to wonder if Shephard’s script will make any racial recognition, and why Danni would choose Rowan, someone already marginalized because of his blackness, from everyone else in the support group. It’s insidious.

But the narrative gallops blindly to where Danni gains an exploding number of social media followers, unequivocal support from her colleagues, and unlimited self-care days at work the moment she publishes the article.

Danni Sanders (German) is linked to another influencer (Dylan O'Brien).
Danni Sanders (Deutch) hangs out with another influencer (Dylan O’Brien) on “Not Okay.”

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Meanwhile, Rowan, an actual and respected activist who deals with real trauma, takes a backseat to Danni Sanders’ burgeoning phenomenon, The Survivor. Admittedly, it’s more than a little wild that we live in a world where traumatic experiences are even so valued and consumed.

It’s wilder, however, that Danni understands from this that black girls and women are perfect sources of trauma — but as a white woman, she can actually get a lot more support for sharing similar experiences.

As adept as “Not Okay” is at recognizing the downright vampiric nature of how trauma is absorbed in today’s culture, it completely avoids delving into the role played by race. By completely ignoring that, Danni feels guilty for lying, but not also because her whiteness encouraged her to do what she did the way she did it.

“Not Okay” just isn’t smart enough to consider or even reflect on the wider implications of its plot, or even of its protagonist, who is superficial and one-dimensional. As a result, the film ends with a bang – the horrific truth comes out and has consequences, but nothing and nobody is ultimately challenged.

That’s a pretty bleak, if realistic, look at the demise of troubled favorites that largely go unchecked. Meanwhile, “I Love That for You” actually delves into its protagonist’s similar moral crises in a much more satisfying way.

From left: Ayden Mayeri as Beth Ann McGann, Johnno Wilson as Perry, Vanessa Bayer as Joanna Gold and Molly Shannon as Jackie Stilton in
From left: Ayden Mayeri as Beth Ann McGann, Johnno Wilson as Perry, Vanessa Bayer as Joanna Gold and Molly Shannon as Jackie Stilton in I Love That for You.

Vanessa Bayer plays Joanna Gold, a woman who survived childhood leukemia and has long dreamed of working at a home shopping network. If all she needed for a position was a heart of gold, she would have been hired immediately. But Joanna is awkward both in front of the camera and in person, and has little work experience.

What she does have, however, is a good, factual story about her cancer. But she wouldn’t use that to land a job and garner a huge audience — would she? You can bet on it. In fact, she goes even further, reluctantly altering the narrative to say it is her quiet has cancer. Even better.

It’s not like Joanna is doing this in good conscience. She is immediately wracked with guilt. That’s especially true when she sees how many more opportunities open up for her at work and the admiration she gets from colleagues who previously rolled their eyes her back when being interviewed for the role.

There’s an internal dilemma Joanna is experiencing that Danni just never has — or at least not for the same reason. Joanna tries to manage the perks she gets on top of the job, while Danni’s sole purpose in exploiting the trauma is the perks and attention. It’s grotesque, although it reflects a range of social media personalities that exist in the real world.

Still, “Not Okay” doesn’t really have any of that to say about her or this phenomenon. It’s not about Danni being a likable character (for what it’s worth, while Joanna is nice, she’s not a particularly likable character herself). But she should, at least at some point, seriously consider the scope of her actions.

From left: Jenifer Lewis as Patricia Kunken and Bayer as Joanna In
From left: Jenifer Lewis as Patricia Kunken and Bayer as Joanna in I Love That for You.

After Danni is found out, she loses notoriety and gains – what? – a chance to perhaps rebuild her short-lived career. In the meantime, the Rowans of the world are likely to have a whole new experience to unpack at their support groups.

On the other hand, the crux of Joanna’s story is her deep regret for whatever she gains from her cancer storyline. A job, a new office, a centralized segment on the network, respect even from her tyrannical boss, Patricia (Jenifer Lewis), who discovers she has real cancer. She also feels genuine regret for the human implications of her choice, something Danni never considers.

Joanna is in constant conflict over what her lie is offering her – so much so that she is able to handle herself while Danni is forced to. Joanna takes responsibility for what she has done and accepts the results regardless of how she is perceived.

This sort of engagement with the larger themes of the story makes for a convincingly flawed character. “Not Okay” presents a flawed character who capitalizes on something only some of us resist – worship of millions of strangers based on a lie – and refuses to engage in the various conflicts that come with it. Thatis actually not okay.

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