“CONTENT WARNING: This film contains flashing lights, themes of trauma, and an unlikable female protagonist.” 

This is the content warning that starts off “Not Okay,” director Quinn Shephard’s new film for Hulu. This sly, slightly sardonic word of caution might have been edgy a few years ago, but now –  in the aftermath of a slew of recent television shows and movies about nefarious women – elicits a bit of an eye roll.

But, as the film progresses, the content warning becomes the first line of attack in “Not Okay’s” attempts at self-awareness. The film is desperate to make sure that we know that it knows just how poorly its main character is behaving. While that self-conscious quality makes for an entertaining and often clever watch, it also breeds a tangled struggle between cynicism and hope – and the film can’t quite decide where it lands. 

Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch) is young, lonely, and terminally online. She doesn’t really like her job, she doesn’t really have any friends (and doesn’t know how to make them), and she wants nothing more than to be famous on the internet. In an attempt to impress her sleazily hot coworker/influencer Colin (Dylan O’Brien), she lies about an upcoming trip to Paris. From the darkness of her Bushwick apartment, she posts photoshopped pictures of herself in “Gay Paris” on Instagram to keep up the ruse. But when a terrorist attack hits the French city, Danni inadvertently gains fame for being a survivor. Does she own up to the lie? Of course not. 

“Not Okay” falls neatly into the age of the scammer, a genre that details the inner workings of young, disgruntled white women who con their way through life. But while the Anna Delveys and the Elizabeth Holmeses of the world might be the more well-known swindlers of our lifetime, “Not Okay” chooses to focus its energy on the social media world and the very specific ramifications that arise when you’re caught lying on the internet. To its merit – and also its detriment – it has the credits to back up that choice, mainly in the form of one Caroline Calloway. 

Unless you’re deep into the Twitter-verse, the name Caroline Calloway probably means nothing to you. Let me explain. Calloway is a writer and a social media influencer with more than a few cons to her name. In 2020, she announced that she would be releasing a memoir, literally called “Scammer. Pre-ordered copies of the book reportedly never shipped, but don’t worry – it’ll be ready in three to six years. Calloway’s eccentric behavior is the stuff of legend online, and trying to explain it to someone who doesn’t already know would take years off my life and theirs. So let me just say, her inclusion in the film – a cameo at an internet shaming support group – is maybe the winkiest wink of all time. 

To my knowledge, Calloway has never done anything close to the level of what Danni does in the film. But it’s more than fair to say that Danni is forged in the Caroline Calloway mold. Calloway’s decision to be part of a film that seems semi-based on her life is one more in a long line of unhinged decisions, and is one of the film’s most brilliant tricks. But, having Calloway there to coach Danni through her transgressions also negates the self-awareness the film is trying to project. 

“I don’t know if I’ve learned anything. I don’t know if I’m better, I don’t know if I’ve grown,” Danni says to the support group. On the one hand, this is an astute – and extremely cynical – observation, and one that holds true for the real world.

Calloway, for instance, has taken a backseat on social media lately, but her Instagram bio still boasts an upcoming, “very real” book for pre-order. Will the book ever come out? Has Calloway learned anything from past promises unfulfilled? Will Danni come out on the other side of this misguided, cruel attention-grab a better person? This scene and the film’s ending hint at the idea that Danni’s vindication doesn’t really matter – and a title card explicitly tells us that a redemption arc is not in the cards for our main character.

But having Calloway – our real-life Danni – be the one to dish out harsh realities gives Calloway a meta-redemption of sorts. Her inclusion also takes the wind out of the sails of the film’s final scene, a powerful condemnation of a culture that lavishes young women who scam with constant attention, yet still hints at the possibility of Danni coming out on the other side. 

Much of the film hinges on Danni’s relationship with Rowan Aldren (Mia Isaac), a teenager who survived a school shooting and has garnered a social media following for her anti-gun activism. Rowan and Danni develop a relationship that, despite Danni’s manipulation, feels very genuine, making Rowan’s discovery of the truth harder to stomach.

Despite the film’s focus on Danni, it ends with Rowan. At a high school cabaret, she delivers a scathing, poetic message to Danni, who – unbeknownst to Rowan – sits in the audience, clutching a notes-app apology to her chest. Danni intends to apologize to Rowan personally – advice she received from Calloway. As Rowan continues to speak, it becomes clear Calloway’s advice was ill-conceived. The image of Danni sinking lower in her chair, holding her haphazard apology as Rowan slams her for what she’s done, underlines the idea that maybe she hasn’t learned anything. But while the film gives Rowan the final word, one of its last images is Danni, smiling through teary eyes as she applauds her ex-friend. She walks away without saying a word, a hopeful note in an otherwise cynical critique. 

“Not Okay” wants to have its cake and eat it too, wants to condemn the Caroline Calloways of the world while also giving them a path forward, and it doesn’t quite find that balance. Rowan’s speech at the end of the film directly criticizes movies like “Not Okay” for focusing on people like Danni Sanders, and in a director’s cameo Shepherd herself says to Danni:  “At the end of the day, you’re a privileged white girl who thinks she’s the main character.” But the truth of it is, Danni is the main character – and no amount of influencer cameos or winks to camera will change that. 

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers.