In an early chapter of DW Gibson’s oral history of modern gentrification, published back in 2015, one of the characters Gibson talks to asks him: Bushwick, what does that mean? Hipsterville? Which is to say that it’s an idea of the northern Brooklyn neighborhood that has been around for a while. And when it snakes its way to TV, it feels familiar. The most memorable depiction, perhaps, comes from just a little over decade ago: the episode from the first season of Girls that laid its claim to neighborhood authenticity in overt terms: “Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident.”
For Hannah Horvath and her friends, Bushwick of the early 2010s had been the warehouse party; spaces emptied by globalization and filled suddenly by those who had benefited most from the waves of abundance that now filled the shelves of every corner bodega. For Danni Sanders, played by the insistently familiar Zoey Deutch in the new movie Not Okay, Bushwick is somewhere she has stopped at, neither a home nor a destination, but a space to occupy in the years after graduating college. In fact, in one of the earliest jokes in the movie, both written and directed by the former child actress Quinn Shephard, Sanders tells her boss at a Buzzfeed-like website called Depravity that she aspires to be “tone deaf” as a writer because “that’s what Lena Dunham does.”
The joke is mean-spirited, much like the movie itself, in which Sanders complains vigorously about not getting invited to a queer bowling night her more popular coworkers are hosting and her inability to catch the attention of a different coworker who looks like Pete Davidson and is played by Dylan O’Brien from the “All Too Well” music video. At Depravity, she is also sidelined as a writer because nobody takes her ideas seriously. She spends much of the movie stewing about all this her large Bushwick apartment, where she lives by herself and which she complains about being blocks deep in “J train Bushwick” (“L Train-Bushwick would be fine,” she pines, when asking her why she lists “I currently live in Bushwick” among her failures in life.)
Shephard draws Sanders out to appear, in some broad sense, relatable; the kind of character Deutch plays appears to be a popular fixture in contemporary TV shows: optimistic strivers who are used as cautionary tales. Elizabeth Lail’s Beck from the first season of “You,” comes to mind, as do “real life” characters like Amanda Seyfried’s Elizabeth Holmes in “The Dropout.” The director is more specific about who she had in mind when she was penning the character, telling Kate Erbland in a fascinating interview at Indiewire that, despite her overt unlikability, she thinks of Danni as “somebody who a lot of people should see themselves in.” Shephard adds: “especially young white women who are on the internet all the time.” It is rare, however, to think of good movies that so explicitly dislike their imagined audience, which sets Shephard up to make a hefty climb. Literalizing the movie’s mildly condescending tone, Shephard says that she never thought about starring in this movie herself, despite her decision to do exactly that in her last movie, a somewhat forgotten indie she also wrote and directed and that used high school students to retell Arther Miller’s “The Crucible,” called Blame.
So, instead, it is Deutch’s Danni Sanders who plays the creatively sidelined writer who goes about the movie’s bad decision: writing a personal essay about surviving a terrorist attack in Paris, after her ideas about writing about life in Bushwick aren’t getting picked up. This eventually blows up in her face – she plagiarized most of that essay from an inspirational speech given to her from a high school student named Rowan, who had survived a recent school shooting. It’s the high school student who anchors the second half of the movie, grounding it in a kind of ambient political reality. Rowan is played remarkably well by Mia Isaac, a young actress who is set to star in an adaptation of Charmaine Wilkerson’s debut novel Black Cake, another Hulu TV show. In an interview with Glamour magazine, Isaac says “I’ve had those kind of tumultuous relationships with white women.” She adds: “I’ve felt used like that before.”
The striking, “tumultuous relationship” between the two gives the movie its emotional backbone. Lying to the readers of Depravity is one thing. But betraying the confidence of a woman of color comes to haunt Zoey Deutch’s face throughout the movie’s darker second half. In the movie’s final scene, Shephard has Rowan use slam poetry to retell the movie’s plot from her perspective, a kind of didactic exercise that even manages to squeeze in the movie’s name. “For someone who’s not okay, you seem okay with quite a lot, actually,” she tells her former friend, who for some reason she isn’t supposed to know is there to quietly listen to all of this in order to think about these things as she walks away in shame.
These kind of strained relationships across racial lines have long dominated stories of life in Brooklyn, even before Bushwick became one of its loudest visual signifiers. The 1989 movie Do The Right Thing outlines the basic architecture of these plots, which generally come to the fore around the specter of violence. It is not a coincidence that Shephard organizes the emotional arc of the relationship in her movie around an attack that Sanders does witness, when fireworks disrupt a small, topical gun control rally that the pair appear at, which gives Rowan a panic attack. (In addition to a much-maligned trigger warning for containing “an unlikable female protagonist,” the movie more earnestly warns of “themes of trauma.) Shepherd says that the kind of movie she wants to make is a “satire,” in the spirit of Heathers and American Psycho, movies about people who do bad things.
But what she wrote, instead, was a movie about a bad person, who is mostly annoying. Her biggest crime is becoming mildly famous. Unlike the characters in the movies that Shepherd cites, those in her movie flinch away, reflexively, from the idea of touching this quotidien world with violence at all, even as it functions off-screen in the loose architecture of the movie’s plot. (The terrorist attack, the school shooting, etc.) Because she doesn’t actually witness it, the attack is remembered in the same ways we would, as dark plumes of smoke that she sees on the news and on social media. This sanitized idea of the modern world continues to the movie’s very concluding walk of shame, which marks Sanders’ fall from grace. Some critics enjoyed this kind of restraint, like Rodlyn-mae Banting at Jezebel, who writes that this means she “does not get any kind of redemption arc” as “no one accepts her apology.” Getting canceled, Shepherd insists, is punishment enough, though it’s hard to imagine a real-life lier and plagiarizer not just moving on and writing for the Daily Caller.
The movie that Not Okay brought most to mind to me, instead, was the recent gentrification drama White Girl, filmed nearby in neighboring Ridgewood. That movie also draws an image of an ambitious blogger, played by Morgan Saylor, who is consumed by feelings of betrayal after moving into a space that feels foreign to her. She also makes a friend of color, who then gets set up by cops in a drug bust and soon faces lengthy prison time. Compared to this and other traumas that ensue, the specter of fictional cancelation feels comparatively pat. But maybe the difference is generational – the Saylor movie was purportedly based on the real life experiences of its writer and director, Elizabeth Wood, doing the implicitly violent work of gentrifying the neighborhood, paving it into what it is today. Hipsterville, once it arrives, is ultimately a fictional territory drawn up to be far away from any idea of real life or danger. By the time Danni Sanders walks off the train, it’s long been colonized.
‘Not Okay’ is currently out now on Hulu.
All images taken from ‘Not Okay.’
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