Isn’t being a teenager the worst? Your mom sucks. Your school is lame. Your town is crapola. If only something special would happen, right? Yet when emotions boil over and someone you don’t like suddenly bursts into a violent nosebleed, perhaps such a desire isn’t a great idea after all.
I Am Not Okay With This is your classic coming of age teenage set of tropes (including ‘Dear Diary’ narration), but with the interesting twist of superpowers. Syd Novak (Sophia Lillis) is a 17 year old girl. Struggling to come to terms with the suicide of her father a year ago, she complains about thigh zits and argues with her overworked mother, while playing baby sitter to her well-meaning younger brother. She’s a loner at school but only best friend Dina (Sofia Bryant) brings out any joy in her. Things are going badly, sure. Yet when she develops the ability to move things with her mind when angry or upset, things can get a whole lot worse.
Based on the comic by Charles Forsman and adapted by Shaun Levy (Stranger Things) and John Entwistle (who also adapted Forsman’s The End Of The F**king World for Netflix), I Am Not Okay With This comes with a lot of cache.
Much like a current crop of successful Netflix shows (the aforementioned TEOTFW and Sex Education, for example), Entwistle and Levy dig deep into a nostalgia vibe without actually specifying when the show is set. Laptops and smartphones ground the show as relevant to a teenage audience whereas a smeared colour palette with late 80s / early 90s soundtrack and retro clothing slap on the rose-tinted glasses for adults.
Syd Novak is heavily written into the self-pitying and eye-rolling angle which Lillis delivers with scathing sarcasm throughout. At first this does grate. It is perhaps a blessing that the show is only 8 short episodes long as even with a dead father angle, the level of ‘being a dick’ is high. This is especially so with Syd’s relationship with neighbour Stan Barber (Wyatt Oleff) whose own father issues don’t dampen his exuberance nor his attraction to Syd. Both Lillis and Oleff spark off each other with hormonal power which sells this relationship well. The fact that Syd freely acknowledges she has been a dick as the show closes is key to not outstaying her welcome.
The dynamic between Syd and best friend Dina is a genuine one with Bryant exuding a mixture of warm aura confidence tinged with adolescent self-doubt. Their connection is tested by Dina’s boyfriend Brad (isn’t there always a ‘Brad’?) who is your typical high school jock. But Syd’s bubbling jealousy harbours more than just resentment at having to share her friend. Even with the aforementioned influences above, the show draws strong parallels to the video game, Life Is Strange insofar as both feature confused teens, supernatural powers, and exploring sexuality.
The telekinetic powers that Syd has are mostly relegated to plot tool. When a circle of trees are blasted over, as Syd yells expletives into the night sky, the focus is on the mortifying teenage embarrassment that drove her there rather than the powers themselves. While each episode will have a money shot or two or Syd’s heightened emotions unleashing uncontrolled damage, the usual comic book movie scenes of Syd learning to master her powers is notable by its absence. Indeed, an attempt by Stan (the only one who knows about her abilities) to be Syd’s self-declared mentor not only fails, but causes a rupture in their relationship. This is Teen with a capital ‘T’ rather than ‘Spiderman learns to webshoot.’
The editing utilises lots of fast cut flashbacks to build up an emotion which rather undercuts the work being done by the actors and borders on being overused. The show opens with, and keeps going back to, a shot of Syd staggering traumatised in a homecoming dress covered in blood. So you know that this stereotypical teen set-piece is going to have consequences. But having to be reminded of it so frequently for such a short show invites some doubt on the part of the producers that we are staying focused.
Whether or not you’ll get into I Am Not Okay With This will likely depend on your predilection for coming of age stories. These above gripes aside, enough threads are left hanging for a second series to explore the characters in more detail and, due to compelling performances from the core cast, I’d be happy to attend the upcoming class reunion.
Words by Michael Record