Netflix’s trailer for I Am Not Okay With This

Whether from the trailer or the very first scene, Netflix’s new series I Am Not Okay With This doesn’t try to hide what it is. “Dear diary,” says our high school “hero,” Sydney, as she narrates from her diary while walking down an empty street covered in a blood-stained prom dress. “Go fuck yourself… I’m a boring 17-year-old white girl. What I mean is, I’m not special.”

Naturally, that’s not quite true, as this seven-episode first season gradually makes clear. Not quite as dark as Carrie (blood aside), not quite as light-hearted as Stranger Things (a comparison that makes sense quickly), I Am Not Okay With This sits squarely somewhere in the middle of the teen-ekinesis spectrum. And whether or not this particular incarnation works for you may largely depend on your appetite for these types of stories in general.

In West Philadelphia Pennsylvania…

Sydney (Sophia Lillis) and her family are relatively new to this suburban Pennsylvania town, but adjusting to a new school and community barely registers on her list of problems to work through. First, there’s the usual (albeit hard) teen stuff—she’s still figuring out her sexual identity, still figuring out how she fits in within the strict social constructs of a stereotypical high school, still figuring out how to communicate honestly with her closest friends (Dina, another new-to-town girl who’s attracted the attention of the quarterback, and Stan, her neighbor who drives an old landshark vehicle and listens to vinyl). But Syd’s entire family also struggles as they cope with the suicide of Syd’s father. Mom has to work overtime at the local diner and doesn’t bring in a ton, leaving Syd and younger brother Liam to navigate aspects of poverty and overall family responsibility. That pales in comparison to the emotional fallout, of course, and the family members haven’t really processed their grief, either.

All that essentially kickstarts this serialized version of author Charles Forsman’s comic story: Syd keeps acting out at school, leading the guidance counselor to encourage her to start a diary as a means of explicitly expressing her feelings and frustrations. But as Syd starts to become more comfortable with controlling her thoughts (or at least recording them honestly), life around her keeps making it harder and harder to do the same with her raw emotions. And when Syd’s anger starts to bubble up, well… you saw the very first image in the trailer, right? It gets messy and it’s definitely not something she totally understands or can control.

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Enlarge / Teen life is hard, though it may be harder if you’ve been dealt the same hand as Sydney in I Am Not Okay With This.


Teen talk

If you love the broad category of “teen angst fiction,” watching I Am Not Okay With This will be like sliding into a warm bath. This show paints a genre collage filled with familiar aspects from its predecessors. It makes for a viewing experience that’s both breezy and effortless while simultaneously and inescapably bringing to mind comparisons to other media. It may be impossible to watch this show without instantly internally referencing something else and wondering if the execution here is better or worse, or whether this show will plot a similar course forward.

For an exhaustive yet incomplete tally: The series leans hard on Syd’s diary entries (read: narration) for both insight, plot, and some laughs à la To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It plays to adult crowds with honest (or at least not overly censored) portrayals of sex, anxiety, drugs, and heady concepts like uncertainty over your own identity or the difficulty of processing someone else’s suicide, as in The Perks of Being A Wallflower. It incorporates supernatural and surreal elements to heighten those topics, like Forsman’s other comic-turned-series The End of the Fucking World. The show even presents that cinematic, idealized version of teen outsider-dom, complete with Wes Anderson-y individual frame compositions and prop design (Overhead shots of a mer-cat diary? Yes, please!) plus needle drops that have you racing to Shazam songs.

Most pivotal for viewers, I Am Not Okay With This does all of that while fairly nimbly bouncing between different tones. One minute Syd and Stan might be grappling with inexplicable supernatural forces by flipping through a stack of comics; the next, Syd’s having an honest conversation with her mom about why they never talked about what happened to dad. Experiencing this as part of a cohesive whole—and not as a discordant attempt at marrying a boatload of teenage-drama influences and predecessors—might be crucial to your mileage with I Am Not Okay With This.

But even if you find the series too paint-by-numbers, I Am Not Okay With This is undeniably bingeable—a perhaps perfect Netflix show for 2020. It ties together several popular Netflix-targeted niches (light sci-fi, high school dramas, pop heavy period pieces) in hyper digestible ~20 minute episodes. It has memorable moments, visuals, and sonic cues that will be rushed to post in some corners of the Twittersphere. (Seriously, someone deliver a good profile of veteran music supervisor Nora Felder.) And the show moves fast, to the point where I initially came away from S1 at large feeling like we just got Syd’s origin story. I Am Not Okay With This represents the rare occasion where saying “you need to watch two or three eps to get the good stuff” honestly isn’t a huge barrier to entry, and even that small sample will genuinely give viewers all they need to know about whether or not to continue.

For the record: The middle of the season (episodes 3-5) ended up as my favorite. By then, you’ve already met the players, have the general lay of the land, and can simply enjoy this show’s version of the big high school party (RIP, Barb from Stranger Things), the “team research in the hopes of understanding the unusual” (Will Byers’ DnD troop deciphering a demogorgon), and a solid heist (Scoop Troop v. Soviets). The season finale (occurring around prom, of course, with a kind of Dustin-y suit involved) does notably deliver a great unexpected yet natural moment while leaving plenty on the table for S2. (For those familiar with Forsman’s original source material, however, you should know this will merely add to the frustration that the TV series decides to leave a pretty crucial and complexity-adding detail from the comic for a future episode run.)

Ultimately, I Am Not Okay With This combines familiar elements in a way that kept me engaged throughout, even if I left a bit peeved about things ending where they did. Luckily, I only need to navigate my frustrations and feelings to power this review. Syd’s feelings and frustrations, on the other hand, will have to wait for S2.

All seven episodes of I Am Not Okay With This season one are available on Netflix. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or ideation, please take advantage of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 in the US or the Samaritans at 08457 90 90 90 in the UK.

Listing image by Netflix