This I Am Not Okay With This review contains no spoilers.
Somewhen between Carrie White, Kitty Pryde and Buffy Summers, adolescent girls and superpowers became a winning combination. All those hormones, all that loneliness and rage, all that feeling like a mutant and being terrified/thrilled by burgeoning sexuality… it’s a metaphor-a-palooza that hasn’t gone unexploited, especially not on screen.
The Craft, Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body and countless others all make the wry point that high school is hell and best friends/parents/quarterbacks can be demons. They also make the more inspiring point that teenage girls – a group doubly disenfranchised by age and gender – have power. Inside them is the strength to fight back, protect others and rain down vengeance on the unworthy, if they can learn to control it.
I Am Not Okay With This, a new eight-episode Netflix comedy-drama adapted from Charles Forsman’s self-published serialized comic, picks up that mantle with the story of Sydney Novak. Played by Sophia Lillis, Syd’s a 17-year-old Pennsylvania high school student self-described as a “boring white girl.” She’s not special, she tells us, but she’s okay with that.
Through Syd’s sardonic Dear Diary voiceover, we meet her mother and younger brother (Kathleen Rose Perkins and Aidan Wojtak-Hissong), best friend Dina (Sofia Bryant) and oddball neighbour Stan (Wyatt Oleff). We learn that Syd has started to manifest mysterious powers at moments of intense stress, and that her troubles started long before that.
Lillis, seen recently in It and Sharp Objects playing younger versions of Jessica Chastain and Amy Adams roles, makes a terrific lead. The part asks a lot of her and she delivers. As Syd, she’s enjoyably disaffected and appealingly goofy. Oleff, Lillis’ co-star in both It movies, is also funny and charismatic as Stan. Bryant is luminous as Syd’s bestie, and Lillis’ on-screen chemistry fizzes with them both.
The casting’s not the problem, it’s the familiarity of the story that bleeds the color out of this series. Set over the course of one week, it lands on every US high school touchstone you can think of: a pep rally, a football game, a house party, a Homecoming dance complete with king and queen. That, and an over-reliance on cinematic quotation leave you feeling as though you’ve seen each part of it somewhere before – in Carrie (obviously), in Donnie Darko, in every film ever made by John Hughes. There’s a point when cine-literacy tips over into cannibalism, and I Am Not Okay With This sails right past it.
At this point, you might bring up the words Stranger and Things and you’d be justified. That show (also produced by Shawn Levy) is also a crosshatch of retro influences, but it works because it quotes them inside a universe that has its own identity. The same goes for director Jonathan Entwistle’s previous Forsman adaptation, The End Of The F***ing World, which made something new from its obsession with cinematic Americana simply by transporting it to England. I Am Not Okay With This’ short first season (eight episodes, some just 16 minutes long) leaves itself barely any time to establish a mythology or make its viewers feel anything much. It’s cool-looking, but underneath that? Looking good doesn’t get you so far when your most memorable imagery is borrowed from elsewhere.
Even the time period is borrowed. Judging by the characters’ smartphones, it’s set around now but the clothes, cars, technology, music and locations are all 1980s tribute acts (Stan dresses like Ferris Bueller, dances like Ducky and listens to Prefab Sprout on cassette tapes, while the school dance plays Aztec Camera, Roxette and Echo And The Bunnymen).
The quotations aren’t limited to the backdrop or the soundtrack. It’s a feast for reference-spotters, from the John Byrne titles featured in a pile of comic books to the high school mascot – a Wolverine. Almost an entire episode is given over to a Breakfast Club tribute complete with a cameo from a Carl the Janitor uniform. A young Netflix audience, drawn in by its offbeat indie style and nihilistic voice, might be prompted to seek out those references for the first time, in which case this series will serve as a useful kind of pop culture ‘reader’ – no bad thing.
But likable and capable as the cast are, the overall effect is slight. It feels like eating in a John Hughes theme restaurant. And if you’ve ever been to a theme restaurant, you might have enjoyed the décor, props and pun-filled menu, but you certainly didn’t go for the quality of the food.
I Am Not Okay With This comes to Netflix on Wednesday, February 26.