Too many things are compared to John Hughes’s movies. Does your high school flick have young people with real desires and opinions in it? Let’s slap a John Hughes label on it. Does your teen show have a detention subplot? That’s Hughes, baby.
Not everything in life is like a John Hughes movie: we all must figure this out eventually.
That being said, Netflix’s new series I Am Not Okay With This forges a path in the spirit of the often-invoked master of teen movies in the best way. It’s Hughesian in the way that each of the major characters is almost too weird and prickly to love, or exactly weird and prickly enough to love to pieces. They’re a little bit reactionary or a little bit practiced in that rarely-pinpointed, realistic way that teens are. Plus, it helps that redheaded young star Sophia Lillis looks like she’s one eye roll away from the Molly Ringwald flip-off bit in The Breakfast Club.
The powers-that-be at Netflix would like you to know, thanks to a buzzy trailer drop, that I Am Not Okay With This also involves the producers of Stranger Things and the director of The End Of The F***ing World, two other hits on the streaming giant. While some responses to the trailer were positive, many viewers across social media indicated that IANOWT looks like a tired mash-up of the two cited series, an unnecessary algorithmic response to the type of content consumers already like. Luckily, that initial response couldn’t be further from the truth.
The series follows a closed-off teen girl named Sydney (Lillis) who’s given a diary in which she angrily processes both outsized emotions and the emergence of new superpowers. IANOWT is based on a graphic novel by Charles Forsman (who also authored The End of The F***ing World) and co-created and executive produced by Jonathan Entwistle (who directed the adaptation of TEOTFW) and Christy Hall, but the two darkly comedic shows share aesthetic sensibilities more than anything else. Sydney exists in an anachronistic version of Pennsylvania that seems unstuck from time, all VHS tapes and wood paneling and gorgeously retro soundtrack choices. The series is directed by Entwistle for maximum intensity like its predecessor, and it’s preoccupied with outsiders, too. Still, it’s sweeter and more accessible than TEOTFW from the start thanks in part to an excellent cast.
Lillis and costar Wyatt Oleff, real-life pals who previously shared the screen in both the IT reboot series and a Sia Christmas music video, convey a near-constant undercurrent of warmth and wry humor below their characters’ angsty exteriors. Oleff’s Stanley is a barefoot stoner who works at a bowling alley, shows up to parties in powder blue suits, and is somehow cool in a way that’s diametrically opposed to any traditional measurement of high school coolness. Lillis’ Sydney is a tomboyish working-class kid who looks like she’s perpetually on the verge of a shrug. She’s a ball of grief, anxiety, rage, and lots of softer feelings that she covers up with the sharper ones. Both teen actors are better than ever before, putting in subtle and hugely endearing work that already feels as if it’ll land in a career retrospective montage someday.
Charismatic newcomer Sofia Bryant rounds out the main cast as Dina, Sydney’s best and only friend who sets off a chain of unpredictable events when she starts dating jock Brad Lewis (Richard Ellis). Rites of passage ensue, against a backdrop of football games, house parties, and homecoming dances, but IANOWT never falls into predictable teen territory. The series opens with Sydney running down the street in a blood-covered-dress (Carrie is another source the story obviously pays homage to without ever copying), and from that moment on, it deftly alternates between classic coming-of-age moments and intense, often startling sequences like that one–displays of Sydney’s apparent emerging powers that surprise both her and the audience.
Sci-fi and coming-of-age fantasy stories have become a major subgenre for Netflix Originals, but I Am Not Okay With This may be the first to take an approach that’s couched in intimacy, not spectacle. It’s a small-scale story about a small town, which makes it infinitely more relatable than the world-saving escapades of shows like Stranger Things. Sydney’s powers aren’t a simple puberty metaphor, but an impressive attempt to capture that raw, strained, personalized feeling of adolescence–of being a rough draft of oneself that’s undiagnosed and unlabeled, confused and distant and lacking both the community and the language to understand what the hell is going on.
There’s one more thing that I Am Not Okay With This has that very few other Netflix Originals do: room to grow. With only seven short episodes in its first season, the series leaves you wanting more. You’ll want answers to its biggest questions, yes, but also more time with these well-built characters and their weird, thrilling version of the world.