I Am Not Okay With This and the Burden of Aesthetic
It’s so easy to write off I Am Not Okay With This as just another nostalgia cash grab.
80s-themed media has been very popular as of late, and the trailer for the 7-episode series comes off as Netflix trying to capitalize on that popularity. I Am Not Okay With This feels like an especially egregious offender by proudly placing “from the producers of Stranger Things” in the trailer and featuring the kids from the It movie as members of the main cast — Stanley Uris even plays Stanley Barber. Wow. They didn’t even try to hide it.
Only when I watched the show did I realize I Am Not Okay With This should not be written off.
Sydney Novak (Sophia Lillis) is a self-described “boring 17-year-old white girl,” and like every boring 17-year-old white girl, she has to grapple with the woes of high school, a troubled home life, discoveries about her sexuality, and unresolved grief. Unlike every boring 17-year-old white girl, Syd is faced with incredible telekinetic powers fueled by her emotions. Joining her in this coming-of-age journey are best friend Dina (Sofia Bryant,) Dina’s perfect boyfriend Brad (Richard Ellis), and the friendly neighborhood stoner Stanley Barber (Wyatt Oleff.)
Casting the It kids proved to be a very smart choice on Netflix’s part, not because of their connection to a successful property, but because of which kids they picked. Stanley Uris was arguably the least developed of the entire Losers Club, and Beverly Marsh was little more than the token girl. Neither Lillis nor Oleff were given a huge chance to show off their acting chops. Here, they’re given plenty, and they both deliver. Sophia Lillis is fantastic as Syd. She’s snarky and sincere in all the right places, her frustration is sympathetic and palpable, and her inner monologue never feels contrived. We watch Lillis and we see in her everything it is to be a teenager. Wyatt Oleff’s turn as Stanley Barber will be be beloved for a long time. He’s funny, awkward, believable, and oh so charming — maybe the finest pothead to ever be put on the small screen. Sofia Bryant also does a great job as Dina. It’s very easy to fall in love with the way she carries herself and the joyful youth she constantly exudes. Richard Ellis starts the season by giving douchebag jock Brad just a touch more humanity than his stereotype, and he even manages to hold his own when his character writing devolves into cliché in the last few episodes. Overall, the cast of I Am Not Okay With This delivers performances that are believable, captivating, and relatable.
“Teenager discovers strange powers while also having to deal with being a teenager” is one of the most common scenarios in superhero stories, and Syd is a character we’ve seen before dozens of times (she bears a striking resemblance to Raven from Teen Titans upon further inspection.) There is a reason why this formula is so popular and so effective, however. Newfound superpowers serve as a great metaphor for adolescence — it’s an extreme change that throws one’s entire perception of self and the world around them into question. Everything suddenly feels a lot more difficult, and questions like “why this is happening to me” and “why is it so hard to exist like this” come to the forefront. For Syd, all the confusion, curiosity, grief, and anger she feels is made manifest through her power, and she has no understanding of or control over this frightening thing inside her. But there is something that sets I Am Not Okay With This apart from its comic contemporaries, and it’s that Syd starts and ends the series on her own. She certainly has friends, but there are no fellow classmates or supervillains for her to find a kindred spirit with, at least none as of season 1. We are not in a world where superpowers or mutations exist. We are in a world that is normal. This actually makes Syd’s predicament more tragic. There are no others like her. She is alone, and she can only be helped by facing her demons and letting people in.
The series really stand out for the better in its treatment of its characters. The sexualization of teenagers is a problem that’s persisted in media for decades. Film and TV are not afraid of addressing the truth that teenagers do have sex, but instead of treating their characters like children who need to mature into and explore their own bodies in healthy ways, the camera tends to treat them as objects to dress down and leer over. I Am Not Okay With This is the rare exception to this trend. It gives the audience just enough visual cues and lines of dialogue to understand what’s going on without resorting to cheap, sleazy sex scenes between minors. Instead of showing us a Syd and Stan foreplay scene, there’s a scene of the two kissing, then the next episode opens with Syd telling Dina that they had sex. This is the way all sexual content is handled — tastefully, clearly, and respectful of its characters’ and cast members’ bodies. Then there’s Syd’s sexuality. Her feelings for Dina are not driven by the audience’s desire to see two chicks making out. They are driven by the deep friendship that runs between the two, and the peace and happiness that Syd feels whenever Dina is around her. It’s an entirely wholesome and honest love that culminates in a kiss that’s as far from the male gaze as one can get. The two of them are even able to talk about what the kiss means for them, and their talk implies that something more between them is possible. I Am Not Okay With This treats teens with respect and integrity, and boy is it refreshing.
Unfortunately, the show’s visuals are very far from refreshing. Muted colors, vintage costumes, and old buildings and sets make it very clear that the show is going for the 80s aesthetic that permeated media in the late 2010s. The visuals aren’t altogether a bad thing; they’re competent, visually pleasing, and easy to watch. But there seems to be no real point to these choices. The homages to Sixteen Candles, Carrie, and The Breakfast Club are instantly recognizable, but they don’t do anything beyond giving the audience a chance to point at the screen and say “hey, I recognize that thing.” It could even be argued that the homage takes away from the show. I Am Not Okay With This is a million times more realistic and poignant than any of the movies it cribs from, but it still feels the need to crib from them. Even worse, the show can’t even fully commit to cribbing. It seems to be set in the 1980s, but then Syd mentions that she has a phone and receives a text from Stanley. The anachronisms get worse from there: offhanded comments about how nobody has worn stockings since the 90s, Dina’s bedroom looking like a Pottery Barn catalogue circa 2014, even modern models of cars in the backgrounds of shots. This dissonance in and of itself proves that there really is no reason for this strange blend of aesthetics — at least, no reason beyond conforming to popularity.
Stranger Things and It worked because they were strong wholes — they were properties with good writing, good acting, and good production, and their 80s aesthetics served to refine the final products and package them in a neat-looking way. They became popular by virtue of their strengths, not by virtue of how they looked. The aesthetic did not make them successful. The aesthetic did not make them good. I Am Not Okay With This operates under the impression that it has to confine itself to this aesthetic to be taken seriously and to be successful. But it doesn’t. I Am Not Okay With This is the kind of coming-of-age story we need more of: touching, well-acted, diverse, firmly grounded in reality in spite of its fantastical nature. It has the potential to reach a lot of teenagers and make them feel seen. The problem is that it’s packaged like every other YA story. It’s a story that stands on its own, but in trying too hard to be another Stranger Things, it comes off as just another Sierra Burgess Is A Loser.