Netflix’s latest sci-fi/drama/comedy/thriller features realistic characters, but lifts heavily from “Stranger Things,” “Carrie,” & just about everything else in the same genre.
Say what you will about Netflix’s baffling business model, particularly when it comes to its practice of releasing hundreds of original programs and promoting perhaps 10% of them. It understands winning formulas, however, none so much as teenagers + supernatural powers=a guaranteed fan base. Filling the gap between seasons of Stranger Things and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (though season three of the latter only just premiered last month) is I Am Not Okay With This, yet another comedy/drama/thriller/etc. in which a teenage girl struggles with both burgeoning mystical powers, and the slings and arrows of growing up. Based on Charles Forsman’s graphic novel, it brings absolutely nothing new to the table (other than a “Dear Diary” narrative device), but features a believable, complicated, often realistically frustrating protagonist.
Sophia Lillis, late of Gretel & Hansel and the IT movies, is Sydney “Syd” Novak, a lonely high school student given to outbursts of anger ever since her father committed suicide. On top of grieving, a strained relationship with her mother, new responsibilities at home, and acne in unfortunate places, Syd harbors a terrible crush on her best friend, Dina (Sofia Bryant), who is blissfully unaware of her feelings. Much to Syd’s dismay, Dina begins dating not just any jock douchebag, but the biggest douchebag of them all, football player Brad Lewis (Richard Ellis), who can’t get through a class on the reproductive system without making a snide joke.
Insincerity all but oozes from Brad’s pores, but Dina is inexplicably over the moon for him, calling him “babe” and wearing his letterman’s jacket. A heartbroken Syd stares at Brad with hate in her eyes, and it’s only when Brad’s nose spontaneously starts to bleed that she realizes she possesses some sort of telekinetic power beyond her understanding. This power only seems to exhibit itself when Syd is angry, which is unfortunate, because she’s angry just about all the time. Syd is propelled by anger, stomping around her drab little Pennsylvania town and scowling at anyone who isn’t Dina or her younger brother, Liam (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong). She’s a prickly heroine, which is the lifeline I Am Not Okay With This clings to to keep from drowning in cliches.
With Dina off attending pep rallies with her horrible boyfriend, and every single adult in town either useless or abusive, the only person Syd has in her corner is her weed dealing neighbor/classmate Stan Barber (Lillis’ IT co-star Wyatt Oleff). Naturally, Stan is besotted with Syd, because it’s 2020 and we still can’t portray male and female characters as being just friends without a lot of complicated emotions. While struggling with her confusing feelings for both Dina and Stan (not to mention her constant simmering rage), Syd tries to figure out both the nature of her powers, and how to keep them under control.
She’s a prickly heroine, which is the lifeline I Am Not Okay With This clings to to keep from drowning in cliches.
Because this is a review, as opposed to a recap, I won’t tell you any more about what happens, but you can almost surely guess. You’ll be able to guess where (or rather, from whom) Syd got her powers, just as you’ll be able to guess what kind of person Brad turns out to be (hint: exactly what you think he will). I Am Not Okay With This is being sold as “if John Hughes wrote a superhero movie,” and indeed, episode five is an homage to The Breakfast Club. But really it’s an “homage” to virtually every movie about teenagers, hitting all the cliches with laser-like precision. There’s the sensitive weirdo, the party of the year scene, the experimenting with drugs for the first time scene, the awkward kiss, the big dance, the confession of feelings at the big dance. There’s even a scene in which a character who is intended to be viewed as frumpy and plain is revealed to be breathtakingly beautiful with just the right dress and makeup.
For a TV show that plays around with the notion of portraying two of its young characters as bisexual, its almost stubborn reliance on the most tiresome of teen movie plot beats (many of them heteronormative) is disappointing. It also tries nothing new with the sci-fi/superhero/horror elements, with the standard “testing out one’s power” scenes, and Syd soon realizing she’s not the only one of her kind. The season ends on yet another “homage,” this time to Carrie, and one has to wonder at what point homages are merely laziness on the part of a show’s writers.
On the bright side, most of the episodes of I Am Not Okay With This clock in at barely 21 minutes long, just right for a weekend afternoon binge. They feel like appetizers to what will presumably be the meat and potatoes of season two. Though she’s at least as hard to buy as an outcast as she was in IT, Lillis is an engaging performer, who gives the sarcastic and mopey Syd some real heart. She has genuine chemistry with Oleff, Bryant and Wojtak-Hissong, which makes sense because their characters are the only ones who feel real and thought out, as opposed to the cardboard cut-outs and stereotypes supporting them.
All four actors, particularly Lillis and Oleff, give way more than the pat, derivative material they’re working with deserves. One hopes that in season two of I Am Not Okay With This the show’s creators Jonathan Entwistle and Christy Hall move past all the homages and tributes and give the show’s stars something fresh and new. We know they’ve seen lots of movies and TV shows, but where are their own voices?
I Am Not Okay With This premieres on Netflix February 26th.