Being a Teenager is Dangerous on Netflix’s I Am Not Okay with This

Netflix is littered with coming-of-age dramedies but few are as effective and entertaining as Jonathan Entwistle’s adaptation of Charles Forsman’s I Am Not Okay with This. One of the elements of “I Am Not Okay with This” that has made it one of the most popular shows on the streaming service in the five days since it launched is that, unlike a lot of bloated modern programs, it’s as streamlined as TV gets. One of the reasons that so many people took to “Russian Doll” last year around this time was because it was easy to binge, something that really could be watched consecutively like a long movie. “I Am Not Okay with This” is only 7 episodes and they average around 20-23 minutes, which makes it significantly shorter than “The Irishman” if you watch it all in a row. And you should. It’s worth it.

The future star Sophia Lillis (“It”) stars as Sydney Novak, our troubled narrator living in small-town America. She's recently moved, so her only real friend is Dina (Sofia Bryant), but Dina is starting to become interested in other people, including the abrasive jock Brad Lewis (Richard Ellis). While Dina drifts away from Syd, she spends more time with an eccentric neighbor named Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) when she’s not helping take care of her little brother Liam (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong) while mom (Kathleen Rose Perkins) is struggling to make ends meet. Syd and Liam’s father killed himself not that long ago, leading to even more emotional upheaval than common for a girl who just discovered she has an acne outbreak on her leg.

Did I mention that Sydney has superpowers? In a very basic sense, “I Am Not Okay with This” is an origin story as Syd starts to discover that she can do strange things with her mind when she’s upset. She doesn’t have much control over the items flying off convenience store shelves or the road sign getting knocked over in telekinetic rage, and the symbol may be obvious for those years in which we don’t really know what’s happening or what we’re capable of, but it’s still well done. Lillis completely sells the confusion and fear while Entwistle brilliantly metes out each new twist and turn to this tale. It’s a show that very consciously echoes both “Carrie” and “The Breakfast Club” at times and yet still feels fresher and more original than the countless teen dramas that we have seen in recent years. Some may look at it and dismiss it as too generic or familiar, and I would understand that, but there’s more truth in the way Entwistle and his team use these clichés than most other shows. Let’s be honest – being a teenager is pretty cliched, so it becomes more about the character work within that construct on a show like this one.

“I Am Not Okay with This” works so well because of how deftly the creators and cast balance those character beats with a breakneck plot that unfolds in only about 140 minutes. And it helps greatly that they have a talented young cast to elevate the material. We have seen so many stories of teenagers dealing with adolescence and family drama, but Lillis not only sells that angle but the developing superpower story as well. She’s great, digging into the smart dialogue and clever writing of Entwistle and his team. And the whole season ends with a wonderfully dark beat that sets it up beautifully for season two.

There are times when the familiarity of “I Am Not Okay with This” can overwhelm what works about it, but this is not meant to be groundbreaking television. When Entwistle stages two characters in a way that recalls “Breakfast Club,” he’s doing so with a knowing wink. Yeah, you’ve seen this before, but there’s still truth and entertainment value in it. We will be watching coming-of-age stories for the rest of time. And most of them won’t be this much fun.

Whole first season screened for review.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also the Editor of Magill's Cinema Annual, a writer for The New York Times, Vulture, The AV Club, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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