With its first season now available for a streaming binge on Netflix, I Am Not Okay With This takes us to a now very familiar place: inside the mind of an angsty American outsider enduring adolescence in a small town. From the producers of Stranger Things and directed by The End of the F***ing World’s Jonathan Entwhistle (and based on the graphic novel by Charles Forsman who also penned F***ing World’s source material), it comes with a twist—bottled up emotions so strong they manifest as superpowers.
As Katie Parker details, Sophia Lillis (It, Sharp Objects) is remarkable as Syd, and the show’s at its best when leaning into its emo inclinations.
Back in my day, TV teen angst was one thing, and one thing only: sexy. Onscreen youths, impervious to the physical indignities of puberty, were less like teens and more like mini-adults leading busy, melodramatic lives full of sex, scandal and sultry stares. I grew up looking forward to an aspirational adolescence, where people lived in pool houses and indie bands played the all-ages juice bar every week.
Yet, lovely as they were, the slick, smooth teens of yore couldn’t last forever. In the age of social media and streaming services, things have veered in a more realistic direction—one where teens really are teens.
Syd (Sophia Lillis from It, Sharp Objects) is a loner and misfit, living with her mother and younger brother in a humdrum Pennsylvania town. She is also mourning her father who recently and shockingly died by suicide, fuming over her best and only friend’s (Sofia Bryant) new relationship with the school jock, and sick of running errands for her grumpy, overworked mother (Kathleen Rose Perkins, Episodes). She gets involved with cute local weed dealer Stan (Wyatt Oleff, also from It) because she feels like she should—but lovely as he is, it’s not what she really wants…
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Told in good old ‘dear diary’ style, Syd walks us through the many infuriating injustices of her life and the big crazy feelings she has about them. It documents a surprising side effect: Syd’s fury, sexual confusion and bottled up emotions are so strong that they are manifesting as superpowers—superpowers that she doesn’t know how to control.
So begins a tumultuous and fairly inconvenient coming of age as Syd’s innermost feels come bubbling up in increasingly violent ways.
Returning to the ‘80s aesthetic of Stranger Things, but skewing more John Hughes than ET in tone, I Am Not Okay With This repeats the quirky realism of its predecessors but goes heavier on the drama. Syd, as you may have gathered from the show’s premise, is mad. So mad in fact, that Syd’s alienation and rage loom large over the show. When the narrative occasionally detours to Breakfast Club-esque hijinks, it can be jarring.
Confronting as these teenage tantrums may be though, I Am Not Okay With This is also at its best when leaning into its emo inclinations. Lillis, finally able to take on a role that is not just the younger version of Amy Adams or Jessica Chastain, is remarkable as Syd—her displays of excruciating frustration almost more realistic than a role like this would normally call for.
Thankfully Oleff, who is just darling, lightens the mood as Syd’s hipsterish neighbour and wannabe suitor, Stan. A likeable foil to sulky Syd, Stan is the ultimate manic pixie dream boy: a stunningly selfless, kooky suit-wearing, vintage car driving antidote to toxic masculinity—and a total fantasy. Still, amongst this dreary lot, he is both delightful and necessary.
With so many seasoned streaming veterans at its helm, it is hardly surprising that I Am Not Okay With This follows what is by now a tried and true formula: a dynamite young cast, Instagram filter cinematography, ‘hot button teen issues’, many many metatextual references and total temporal ambiguity. (I thought it was set in the ‘80s until someone mentioned vaping in episode five.)
Sincere as its young cast may be, there is something contrived and vaguely cynical underlying the various twists given to the typical teen coming of age narrative. Syd’s awkward foibles and thigh pimples and general malaise may be ‘real’—but somehow even these attempts at authenticity lack the humour and heart they need to make an impact. The superhero angle in particular often feels clunky and unsubtle, while Entwistle struggles to make it feel like anything more than a gimmick.
It’s not exactly a new problem for Netflix content, and perhaps now even a tired criticism, given that here the effect is not exactly bad so much as it is middling. I Am Not Okay With This, though not mind-blowing, has numerous strengths and will no doubt be immortalised in moody GIFs on Tumblr accounts everywhere. But for those of us who have slogged through the unremarkable likes of Riverdale, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Society et al., patience is wearing thin. It’s a little disappointing that even a show all about very strong feelings ultimately does not evoke that many at all.
All episodes of I Am Not Okay With This now streaming on Netflix