While it’s not breaking any new ground, the series does well to separate itself from its peers.
Seventeen-year-old Sydney Novak (Sophia Lillis) is facing changes. She’s getting acne on her thighs. Her best friend — for whom Syd is harbouring deeper feelings — is dating a new, near-cartoonishly horrible boyfriend. She’s grieving her father’s death and has a combative relationship with her mother. And emerging from her anger, anxiety and embarrassment are superpowers that she doesn’t know how to control.
Based on the graphic novel by Charles Forsman, Netflix’s I Am Not Okay With This comes from Christy Hall and Jonathan Entwistle. It marks the second adaptation of Forsman’s work by Entwistle, who previously directed The End of the F***ing World.
This new show is familiar but engaging, navigating the awkwardness of being a teenager in small town, American suburbia, with the added mystery of Syd’s powers.
Using superpowers as an extension of a teenage character’s mental state isn’t a new approach; teenage girlhood especially has been explored through many a monstrous metaphor.
I Am Not Okay With This doesn’t hide its predecessors. In its very first shots, the show alludes to the most iconic image from Stephen King’s Carrie (and its multiple adaptations) as a blood-soaked Syd wanders through empty streets.
Even if the teenage superpower metaphor is familiar ground, the show finds success in using Syd’s powers to visualise extreme distress. It captures that panic-stricken feeling of the world seeming too overwhelming, when it seems like the walls around you are shaking, when it seems like you’re losing control of your own body.
While the fear and shame Syd feels about her changing self are palpable, the show doesn’t demonise her. It reminds us that to feel strange and imperfect is to be human.
Syd’s queerness also emerges as the season progresses. From her discomfort in traditionally feminine clothing to the way she looks at and speaks of her best friend, Dina (Sofia Bryant), Syd’s crush carries around the weight of internal expectations.
She shouldn’t like Dina this way, she tells herself, she should like boys this way — boys like the eccentric Stan (Wyatt Oleff), who is much more comfortable in his own skin than Syd is. The weight of heteronormativity is a silent force that only further makes Syd believe something is wrong with her.
But the show knows there’s nothing wrong with Syd. The validity of her feelings, whether about her crush on Dina or the confusion behind her aggression, is respected, and it’s an important message to send any teenage viewers grappling with similar emotions.
It also helps that the teens are played by actual teenagers, not glamorous actors in their mid-20s. It’s something I Am Not Okay With This has up on others of its ilk, like fellow Netflix series Riverdale.
With characters dealing with changing bodies and feelings, having believable performers inhabit them goes a long way. Lillis and Oleff — who previously worked together in Andy Muschietti’s It movies — in particular make for a solid pair of outsiders.
The season’s final episode ends on a cliffhanger that opens up complicated possibilities for the future of Syd and those she cares about. Will audiences think the show does enough new things with its derivative concept to get excited for more? It’s hard to say, but bite-sized, 30-minute episodes make for easy viewing and that cliffhanger does pack a punch.
Syd’s story isn’t over yet. Hopefully her best is yet to come.
I Am Not Okay With This hits Netflix on Wednesday February 26.