By KERRY TINGA
Photos courtesy of NETFLIX
What if John Hughes made a superhero movie? That is the question Netflix posed to their audience when promoting their new teen dramedy I Am Not Okay With This (IANOWT). Yes, there are clear allusions to Hughes’ ’80s Brat Pack films, including an episode that acts as an homage to The Breakfast Club. And, yes, 17-year-old Sydney Novak (Sophia Lillis) has superpowers. But at its core, IANOWT is grounded in such emotional realism that transcends all those comparisons, in the best of ways.
The show is adapted from the graphic novel of the same name by Charles Forsman, whose previous work, The End of the F***ing World (TEOTFW), was previously adapted into a now two-season series that is also streaming on Netflix. The closest comparison with an existing work would be with TWOTFW. They both focus on discontented teens, use sarcastic narrations by their snarky protagonists, have extremely brief running times, great soundtracks, and titles that are a mouthful to say.
The brief running time that adds up to roughly two-and-a-half hours makes it feel like we are seeing bits and pieces of Sydney’s life, rather than watching a coherent storyline. The only thing that reminds us that there is meant to be an arc is a Stephen King Carrie-esque sequence at the beginning of most of the episodes, with Sydney covered in what we assume to be blood running in the middle of the street that foreshadows the season finale. Even if you think you know how it will end, you will still probably be surprised—I was.
For most of the series, we simply learn about Sydney, who is attempting to adjust to various changes in her adolescent life. She is dealing with emotions she does not quite understand yet relating to her best friend Dina (Sofia Bryant), who has started dating jock Brad Lewis (Richard Ellis), changing the dynamic of their friendship. As Dina begins to drift away, Sydney becomes closer to the offbeat Stanley Barber (Wyatt Oleff), who exposes her to new things and experiences, and vice versa. Her home life is even less stable, her family dealing with the effects her father’s suicide has had on them.
There is so much going on, so much she does not understand, it could make a person act out and scream at the top of their lungs in frustration.
Sydney discovers she has telekinetic powers and, like her emotions, she has no way of controlling them. That is because those powers act as an extension to the pent up, anxiety, anger, a mix of emotions people never quite understand goes on in them, rather than a separate part of her. She isn’t a superhero. She is a teenager who just so happens to have powers, and that is what makes the series quite a refreshing and enjoyable watch.
While there isn’t quite a story, but rather a scenario, I found myself drawn to Lillis’ Sydney because of how familiar she was. I related to, or at least empathize with, her growing pains, whether I experienced them or saw friends go through similar rough patches. The telekinetic powers are merely incidental to this coming-of-age saga that blends hurt and humor in a way that is closer to reality than most similar teen films and shows, such as Stranger Things, or even the ones that don’t feature special powers.
The best way to describe it would be to compare it to my favorite parts of any Hughes film: the unexpected dance sequence.
Duckie (Jon Cryer) in Pretty in Pink mouthing and dancing to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” The students in detention in The Breakfast Club dancing to Karla DeVito’s “We Are Not Alone.” The iconic “Danke Schoen” and “Twist and Shout” parade scene of Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Beyond Hughes, Dirty Dancing or Footloose or Risky Business, even 13 Going on 30, suggest that an impromptu dance sequence could only come from the mind of a teenager. These aren’t musical films per se, but they blend seamlessly into the storyline and don’t seem so out of place.
Do teenagers grandly erupt into choreographed dance sequences? No. But the sequences feel like such an accurate expression of the raw, pent up emotion teenagers can sometimes feel when they blast a song loudly in their room, or in their headphones so they can just close the world out and feel out their emotions.
Do teenagers have powers? No. At least not to my knowledge. But it felt so relatable and real that it didn’t feel like a science fiction series. Of course, she has powers, think about what she has to deal with! Look beyond the premise of “teenager with superpowers” and you will find a heartwarming tale of teenagers, dealing with teenage stuff, the good, the bad, and the telekinetic.
I Am Not Okay With This premiered on Wed., Feb. 26, on Netflix with seven half-hour episodes.