“I Am Not Okay With This,” the newest teen tragicomedy from Netflix, isn’t the first coming-of-age story to posit that growing up sucks, and it most certainly won’t be the last. Based on Charles Forsman’s comic book of the same name, the series doesn’t shy away from the fact that puberty is embarrassing, terrifying and rage-inducing. Confronting adolescence is a hefty enough task without having to worry about the onset of violent, uncontrollable superpowers.
Yet this is precisely what’s asked of 17-year-old Sydney Novak (Sophia Lillis), whose thigh zits are the least of her worries. In the wake of her father’s suicide a year prior, Sydney is constantly tamping down her omnipresent rage: She argues constantly with her overworked, distant mother (Kathleen Rose Perkins), resents her best friend, Dina (Sofia Bryant), for waltzing off with reprehensible jock Brad Lewis (Richard Ellis) and begrudgingly flirts with her quirky neighbor, Stanley Barber (Wyatt Oleff), rather than facing her growing feelings for Dina.
Soon, Sydney finds that her anger has found an unconventional release valve — the kind that gives other people nosebleeds, sweeps groceries off of shelves and levels forests. The angrier Sydney gets, the more unpredictable her telekinetic abilities become, a volatile pattern with destructive consequences that the show hints at from its very first moments.
“I Am Not Okay With This” isn’t technically set in the 1980s, but it might as well be. The series features a supernaturally powered protagonist clad in a blood-soaked dress à la “Carrie,” the quaint, small-town setting of “Stranger Things” and two cast members from “It.” Characters wear letterman jackets and drive around in old cars. There’s even a brief “Holding Out For A Hero” needle drop. The show’s recurring leans on genre-based nostalgia conjure up purely predictable charm, but “I Am Not Okay With This” nevertheless finds its strength in refreshing updates of this trope-y familiarity. Sydney’s trauma and fury are realistically ugly rather than glossed over, and the tired love triangle is smartly swapped for a grounded exploration of Sydney’s coming-to-terms with her sexuality and her friendship with the ever-supportive Stanley.
Both Lillis and Oleff do their part to upgrade the series from pure pastiche, giving engaging, mature leading performances. Oleff, easily the show’s comedic standout as a Steve Harrington-esque male lead, has grown a great deal from his childhood turn in “It.” He sells Stanley as a believably earnest dork and provides one of the show’s lighter presences, even as brief insights into Stanley’s relationship with his abusive father allow Oleff to explore the distress that lies beneath.
But it’s Lillis who carries “I Am Not Okay With This,” gamely sifting through the roiling mess of Sydney’s enmity, anguish and fear. Lillis gives a complex performance that the show’s narrative devices often don’t give her credit for — each episode is bracketed by voice-over narration in the form of Lillis’ readings of Sydney’s diary entries (“Dear diary: Go f— yourself,” the first episode drolly begins). This narration does occasionally offer comedic moments when Sydney’s internal monologue contradicts her outward actions; but more frequently, the voice-over is clumsily laid over many of Sydney’s pivotal moments, stating obvious sentiments for the audience — “I feel so angry,” “This thing inside me. … I don’t control it” — that could otherwise be gleaned from Lillis’ knotty, vulnerable facial expressions alone.
In spite of some stylistic missteps, “I Am Not Okay With This” benefits from smart, succinct pacing. At only seven episodes averaging 20 minutes each, the series never dawdles — the plot develops at an engrossingly accelerated speed, relentlessly building to a splashy, dark climax and a harrowing cliffhanger that shamelessly sets up the inevitable second season. Although many of this season’s plotlines function as set-up for what’s to come, this initial act remains consummately binge-worthy by design.
It’s true that “I Am Not Okay With This” shares much of its charm with its forerunners; the similarities to genre staples and co-creator and director Jonathan Entwistle’s previous Forsman adaptation, “The End of the F***ing World,” are undeniable. But there’s more than enough craft, intrigue and fresh talent on display in this particular supernatural teen caper for “I Am Not Okay With This” to successfully entice viewers and carve out its own niche.
At the very least, the show does an admirable job capturing the vagaries of puberty and female rage; sometimes, when you’re growing up, leveling a forest doesn’t sound so unreasonable.