From the producers of Stranger Things and director of The End of the F***ing World, I Am Not Okay with This follows Sydney (Sophia Lillis), a teenage girl wrestling with the loss of her father and some serious anger issues. Sidney has a problem: when she loses control of her negative emotions, bad things start to happen.
First, it’s giving someone she hates a nosebleed, soon after, it’s the destruction of what’s around her. Faced with little light in her life outside of her best friend Dina (Sofia Bryant), Sydney doesn’t want to tell anyone about what’s happening to her, so tries to deal with her abilities alone; that is until she meets Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), an eccentric marijuana dealer who lives down the street and enjoys being barefoot. Now that he knows, it’s up to them to conceal and investigate Sydney’s capabilities, which aren’t all that unlike Eleven’s from Stranger Things.
I Am Not Okay with This‘ short episodes — all are under 30 minutes long — are set against Sydney’s inner-monologue, a common tool of introspection in today’s teen dramas. This narration is a key element in a show where the protagonist rarely says what she means. Sydney won’t talk to anyone other than Stanley about her powers, her relationship with her mother is strained because of their shared grief, and to make matters more complicated, she has complicated feelings for Dina that go beyond platonic affection.
If it sounds like there’s a lot of character stuff going on, it’s because there is. Those expecting to find a story that focuses on superpowers may be disappointed. Most of I Am Not Okay with This is concentrated on character interactions and the developments in their relationships with each other, so it’s a good thing the young cast — who actually look the age they’re playing — are more than capable of bringing their roles to life vibrantly.
Sydney, Stanley, and Dina are delightful to watch, especially when they form a dynamic that involves the three of them working together. Dina is kind, bubbly, and a good friend, but is held at arm’s length by Sydney’s secrecy. And Stanley, although teetering on the edge of the ‘knowledgeable nerd side-kick’ trope, forges his own distinct identity that’s surprisingly lovable and fresh yet familiar. Each of them has their own difficulties in life and their own ways of dealing with them.
Being set in high-school, the series does occasionally enter the awkward teen territory. Among the few cringe-inducing scenes is one particularly painful game of Fuck Marry Kill. Much like Sex Education — another Netflix show that explores the messiness of puberty — I Am Not Okay with This is weirdly hard to place; but on this occasion, it’s when instead of where. The 90s are referenced as being in the past, but the styling and wardrobe are decidedly not modern. There’s a vintage look to the clothing, cars, and production design, as well as a noticeable lack of smartphones. It makes sense then, that the cinematography is reminiscent of 70s film photography with its earthy tones, grainy texture, and warm colors.
It’s not a shock to see a teen show take this route, many others have, but it’s still refreshing to watch something about kids without having on-screen text bubbles be their own character. Instead, Sydney and her friends have to confront situations head-on.
Sydney’s broken family, Stanley’s home life, and Dina’s boyfriend troubles sometimes lead the show into dark territory — most certainly when it tackles the death of Sydney’s father and how pain can be passed from parent to child — but it never wallows in it for too long, and changes in tone come pretty regularly. This isn’t a major issue, everything fits nicely, but sometimes the short running times struggle to allow events and turns to breathe or be explored to the extent they could be, which is most apparent in the first episode which ends before the story feels like its beginning.
After the quick introduction, the following episodes go by just as fast and mainly feature sub-plots. Developments with Sydney’s power predicament come slowly, which eventually leads to a loss of intrigue and mystery. We don’t learn much, and the result dulls interest in what initially made the show stand out. Repetitive cuts to flashbacks of Sidney’s outbursts are commonly used to remind us of what she faces, but they lose their edge quickly despite good editing.
I Am Not Okay with This has a strong grip on textured world-building and character interiority, but less so with a satisfying and consistent narrative. But even if we don’t learn much, it’s charming none-the-less with a strong cast of up-and-comers and understated navigation of sexuality.
I am Not Okay with This releases February 26th on Netflix