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This might be a bit crazy, but hear me out: What if there was a story in which the onset of supernatural abilities was actually a metaphor for adolescence? Okay, so the premise of Netflix’s I Am Not Okay With This might ring a bell to anyone familiar with the X-Men, Spider-Man, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Ginger Snaps, and countless other books, comics, movies and TV shows. The show doesn’t have much new to offer as a superhero tale or coming of age story. But it does have one major asset to its credit: It’s all mercifully small scale. That means after years of being inundated with the bloated fantasy worlds of the MCU, Game of Thrones, and even newcomers like Netflix’s Locke & Key, I Am Not Okay with this tells a blissfully simple origin story—and wraps it all up in under three and a half hours.
Sophia Lillis plays 17-year-old Sydney, who’s grappling with the still-recent suicide of her father while trying to adjust to being the new kid in her small Pennsylvania town. On top of her trauma and grief, Sydney’s dealing with all the normal troubles that comes with the teen years, like a tense relationship with her hard-working mom, trying to parse her feelings for her best friend and and the fact that her neighbor Stan (Lillis’ It co-star Wyatt Oleff) clearly has a pretty big crush on her. And when she gets mad, stuff has a way of flying across the room. The show is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Charles Forsman, whose The End of the Fucking World was also adapted into a dark teenage comedy.
I Am Not Okay wears its debts on its sleeves, which are long and gripped fiercely in its nail-bitten fists. The John Hughes vibes are strong throughout, and are hammered home in one episode that finds five of the series’ characters facing detention. The soundtrack is full of Echo and the Bunnymen and the Pixies, and while cellphones suggest that it takes place in the present, these are teenagers who listen to records and name check the “women’s lib movement,” which isn’t a phrase that anyone’s used in at least the past 30 years. This throwback bent helps highlight all about the show that feels recycled, while pointing to the endless nostalgia-inception that so often marks teen life. I wore a Members Only jacket daily while listening to my iPod Mini. Now, 2020 kids dance in Tik Tok videos while dressed like they’re heading to a Pearl Jam concert.
While the familiarity of the plot and theme are a count against the show, it’s got two big things in its favor. First, Lillis and Oleff are magnetic, and wear their Hughesian roles perfectly. Lillis’ angst is full of shades of Molly Ringwald, while Oleff is her charming though deeply misguided Duckie counterpart. And secondly, the show embraces what it is: a small-scale superhero series.
Syd’s family dramas, friendships, and telepathy may not be unique or terribly memorable, but they’re served up in a tight, almost irresistibly nimble package. This economy is also present in the series’ effects. Sydney’s powers make noses bleed and send bowling balls flying, but for most of the season, they don’t do much else. It’s a welcome change from superhero shows that have Marvel movie dreams and streaming sitcom budgets, series that, like The Runaways, would have done well to scale the whizz-bang stuff down a notch.
At seven episodes that are each under 30 and sometimes under 20 minutes long, the show adopts an economy that I wish more comic-inspired series appreciated. Amazon’s Hunters kicked off with a 90-minute premier, and followed with nine more episodes that average an hour each. Netflix’s Locke & Key mostly hovered around the 45 minute mark, but could have cut nearly half of its 10 installments. One way to reckon with a show’s shortcomings is to just wrap it all up. Before the problems with I Am Not Okay ever feel too weighty, the credits roll in and wash them all away.