It’s hard to avoid comparing I Am Not Okay with This with Pretty in Pink (or other John Hughes films to some degree), and not because it’s a High School, coming-of-age effort, but because it’s following the exact formula. The difference is that nearly every literal, straightforward statement you find in Hughes’ work is replaced either with broad-spectrum metaphor or narration that simply makes the literal even more literal.
An inability to fit in among the social strata comes with an actual superpower. Teen angst and unbridled emotion actually manifest in a kind of “rage force.” Presentation of our heroine’s motivations is instead simply delivered by way of her diary entries. Our “further outsider” (Ducky) is himself more of a metaphoric conglomeration spilling pseudo-deviant koans than he is any specific character.
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The result, which is ultimately a wildly hyperbolic exploration of approaching maturity, takes a lot of liberties even with its most mundane plot steps, but has a lot in common with the purest mythic tales, both old and new. It is only tangentially about what it’s about, and by eschewing certain norms of realistic construction it opens itself up to a depth of deconstruction that is otherwise nearly impossible to deliver. It analyzes parental relationships, comparing “lost” fathers, teen sex, sexual orientation, entitlement, disenfranchisement, misogyny, etc., and it manages to bring it all to the fore because it isn’t really paying attention to anything and has no pattern it has to build statements into. Who you are, or aren’t, interested in dating, and where that fits into the rest of your life, has the same weight as possibly discovering you don’t feel like a freak in the same way as everyone else, because none of it makes any more sense than anything else. When you start discovering that you aren’t at all what you thought you were, the particulars don’t matter much.
Sophia Lillis (recently of the It films and Gretel & Hansel), as Sydney, has the unenviable task of connecting threads that have as much in common as anything about teen life, and most of the work has to be done by delivering emotions, when she’s alone. That’s rough territory for any actor, and while she eventually gets to use best friend Dina (Sofia Bryant) and social misfit Stanley Barber (Wyatt Oleff – also of the It films) as sounding boards, the shock, bewilderment, and rage that are truly the focus of the series are still all hers.
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It’s a series that’s as fun and thrilling as it is cold and brutally honest, and it gets all of its heart by its avoidance of avoidance. Instead of approaching any teen trials from some perspective of ultimate wisdom, it sticks with just laying out that, really, it’s all bonkers. Superpowers or acne comparisons, the world is the same amount of upside-down… or something.
Also like Pretty in Pink, I Am Not Okay with This gives us the idea that the answer to how one fits in is simply the realization that you never should have been asking the question. When you go to the prom anyway, that’s a hell of a feel-good moment. When you aren’t sure where your budding sexuality is heading and your identity is itself destructive, that’s an empowering embrace of self that will likely resonate with generations of fans.