This week Netflix welcomed another high school drama to its growing collection. As with the platform’s more established shows like Sex Education, The End of the F***ing World, Trinkets, and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, teenage angst is a central theme of I Am Not Okay With This – an adaption of the graphic novel by Charles Forsman (The End Of The F***ing World). And in fairness, the show’s main character Sydney (played by It Chapter Two’s Sophia Lillis, who veers brilliantly between awkwardness and an endearing sulkiness) has a lot on her plate.
Grieving for her dead dad, struggling to get along with her mum (Kathleen Rose Perkins), and fiercely protective of her younger brother Liam (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong), Sydney is also going through another personal shift. As she navigates the thorny road of mourning, she stifles her romantic feelings towards best mate Dina (Sofia Bryant), seethes with anger aimed at Dina’s jock boyfriend Brad (Richard Ellis), and bats away the well-meaning attention of her dorky neighbour. Played by Lillis’ It Chapter Two cast-mate Wyatt Oleff, Stanley drives a classic car, and dresses like a member of Bon Iver’s entourage. Sydney’s school counsellor suggests channelling her feelings into a diary; instead, anger, confusion and horniness manifest as unpredictable psychokinetic powers.
The show’s creator Jonathan Entwistle – also the mind behind The End of the F**king World, another Forsman adaptation – has previously described this show as Carrie, but set in a John Hughes universe. As if to hammer the comparison home, the first episode ends with a shot of Sydney sprinting down the road with a blood-covered face. A forthcoming prom lingers large over the plot. As with Carrie, Syd’s powers come to light just as she is starting to find her feet as a teenager. Similarly, they’re often triggered by anger.
I Am Not Okay With This has an intriguing premise that should set it apart from its other teenaged Netflix counterparts on paper; unlike the sci-fi excess of Stranger Things, the dark magic of Sabrina, or the psychopathic themes of Entwistle’s previous show, Sydney’s superpowers feel lighter, and like a relatable vehicle for the struggles of growing up. Horny anger is a potent cocktail at the best of times, and though it’s physically impossible to channel it into flinging bowling balls through the air with mind-power alone, that certainly feels like an appealing prospect. But disappointingly, the platform’s latest coming-of-age show can also suffer from a distinct lack of originality. Stylistically, it’s the equivalent of putting Netflix’s tried-and-tested, faux-’80s high school success stories into the blender.
The show’s setting, Brownsville, population 5,283, is washed with all-too-familiar muted tones – it’s interchangeable with virtually any other generic Netflix Nowheresville. Clunky jukeboxes blast an affected retro soundtrack, and it’s never completely clear if these characters exist in the ‘80s, or frequent far too many vintage shops in the present day. As with countless other Netflix shows, this stylistic ambiguity is referenced in meta style. “Oh my god, VHS,” Syd exclaims, rifling through Stanley’s video collection. “The shitty texture is key to the experience,” he replies, hinting at a time frame before instead mentioning a competitor from the late ’70s. “I can’t with LaserDiscs.”
As with Entwistle’s The End of the F**king World, Sydney’s whirlwind is accompanied by a sardonic and self-aware narrator, who often begins her statements with “Dear Diary…”. At times, the script seems to reference Heathers: “I feel like I’m racking up a body-count,” Syd says, echoing that film’s famous line “Dear Diary, my teen angst bullshit has a body count.” Elsewhere, a detention recalls another famous scene from The Breakfast Club; Stanley meanwhile has a vague air of Duckie from Pretty in Pink.
I Am Not Okay With This is occasionally a far more compelling prospect, and in its best moments, leaves these derivative throwbacks behind. The accidental death of Liam’s hedgehog Banana makes for surreal viewing; his solemn funeral undermined with Syd’s interior monologue. “He was only 12 in hedgehog years,” she thinks, staring into his grave. “I murdered a tween!” As Sex Education does so brilliantly, this show handles the weightier themes – such as sexuality, and the feeling of being a misfit – deftly. When Stanley and Syd compare gross pimples after getting stoned together, they realise that all teenagers have their own image hang-ups; as Syd tries to nonchalantly describe a sexual encounter that her heart wasn’t invested in, Lillis portrays her seat-shifting unease perfectly. Lillis is frequently hilarious in the lead role without missing a beat, “You told Dina that Stan was going down somewhere, and he was good at it,” says her ever-observant sibling Liam. Syd can only grimace, and mutter something vague about Stanley’s forthcoming trip to Mexico. A dance scene with Dina, where Syd bobs awkwardly to the music while trying not to gawp, speaks volumes.
The show’s stylistic touch points, however – which once felt like a breath of fresh air for TV a few years ago – just feel overdone at this stage. It makes for frustrating, monotonous viewing. I Am Not Okay With This has a cracking cast, and explores modern concerns with an easy wit. But you can’t help wishing it would try something new.