In an early chapter of DW Gibson’s oral history of modern gentrification, published back in 2015, one of the book’s “real life” characters asks him: Bushwick, what does that mean? Hipsterville? When hipsterville snakes its way to TV, it starts to feel familiar. For me, there was the one in the first season of “Girls,” which laid its claim to neighborhood authenticity in own overt terms: “Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident.”
For Hannah Horvath and her friends, Bushwick had been the refuse of a warehouse party; spaces emptied by globalization that were filled suddenly, instead, with bodegas. For Danni Sanders, played by the Zoey Deutch and the lead in a new movie called Not Okay, Bushwick is somewhere she has just stopped at, neither a home nor a destination, but a space to occupy in the years after graduating college. In the movie, written and directed by a former child actress named Quinn Shephard, Sanders tells her boss at a Buzzfeed-like website called “Depravity” that she sees herself in the “tone deaf” mold of “what Lena Dunham does.”
The comedy of errors that follows sees Sanders complain vigorously about not getting invited to a queer bowling night and documents her failure to catch the attention of a coworker played by Dylan O’Brien, notable from the “All Too Well” music video and here mugging a kind of Pete Davidson-look. At “Depravity,” she is also sidelined. Nobody takes her ideas seriously. She spends much of the movie stewing about all this at her large Bushwick apartment, where she lives by herself, deep in “J train Bushwick” (“L Train-Bushwick would be fine,” she adds.)
Shephard draws Sanders out as an optimistic striver-turned-cautionary tale. Elizabeth Lail’s Beck from the first season of “You,” comes to mind, as does Amanda Seyfried’s take on Elizabeth Holmes in “The Dropout.” Shephard says, in a recent interview that 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’s notable, perhaps, that Shephard does not see herself as one of these women; she did not consider starring in the movie herself, unlike her first feature, a poorly-seen retelling of Arther Miller’s “The Crucible,” called Blame.
So, instead, it is Deutch plays the creatively sidelined writer who goes about writing a personal essay about surviving a fictionalized terrorist attack in Paris, the problem being that her essay is as fictional as the attack, which is portrayed with cheap greenscreens and then largely forgotten about. To do this, she plagiarizes most of that essay from an inspirational speech delivered to her from a high school student named Rowan, who has actually survived a fictional school shooting, not described. Played remarkably well by Mia Isaac, a young actress set to star in a TV adaptation of the Charmaine Wilkerson novel Black Cake, she anchors the second half of the movie, grounding it in a kind of ambient political reality. In an interview in Glamour, Isaac says: “I’ve had those kind of tumultuous relationships with white women … I’ve felt used like that before.”
The striking, “tumultuous relationship” between Isaac and Deutch and gives the movie a semblance of emotional heft. Lying to the readers of “Depravity” is one thing. But betraying Isaac’s confidence haunts Deutch’s face throughout the movie’s darker, second half. When it comes to an end, Shephard has Rowan use slam poetry to retell the movie’s plot from her perspective, a didactic exercise that manages to squeeze in the movie’s name. “For someone who’s not okay, you seem okay with quite a lot, actually,” she tells us. Deutch walks home in shame.
These kind of strained relationships 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 center 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 Sanders does witness, when fireworks disrupt a gun control rally held by a few extras, which gives Rowan a panic attack. (In a much-maligned trigger warning centering on the movie’s “unlikable female protagonist,” the movie also, more earnestly, warns viewers of its “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, by which she means movies about people who do bad things.
What she wrote, instead, is 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, Deutch’s hands are largely clean of any serious or gory misdeeds. Because she doesn’t actually witness it, the terrorist attack feels like a sanitized part of the modern world’s many acts of abstract violence. Some critics enjoyed this kind of restraint, like one 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 see why Deutch’s character doesn’t just turn around and write for the Daily Caller.
The movie that Not Okay brought most to mind, instead, was the more recent gentrification drama White Girl, filmed nearby in neighboring Ridgewood. That movie also draws an image of an ambitious blogger, played by Morgan Saylor, 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 faces lengthy prison time, a considerably more dramatic state of affairs than the specter of fictional cancelation. The difference is generational – by the time Danni Sanders walks off the train, it’s long been colonized.
‘Not Okay’ is out now on Hulu.
All images taken from ‘Not Okay.’
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