Netflix's library of originals dedicated to the horrors of growing up continues to expand with I Am Not Okay With This, an adaptation of Charles Forsman's comic of the same name. From Jonathan Entwistle, who also did Forsman's The End of the F***ing Worldfor Netflix, and the producers of Stranger Things, the series follows Sydney (It star Sophia Lillis), a teenager attempting to navigate the complexities of high school and her budding sexuality while also struggling to understand and control a newfound supernatural ability. It's hardly new territory -- it's not even new territory for Netflix -- and yet the series, which is now streaming, still finds ways to set itself apart while telling a story that resonates with its audience, and it starts with the setting.
The seven-episode first season, which is more expansive and has a much lighter tone than Forsman's comic, was filmed around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with many exteriors shot in the small town of Brownsville, approximately 40 miles to the south. Thanks to a tax credit in the state, more films and TV shows are opting to film there (Netflix's Mindhunter was also filmed in Pittsburgh), providing a much welcome reprieve from the general sameness of so much of American TV. The streets of L.A., with the peaks of the Santa Monica or San Gabriel Mountains in the distance and palm and orange trees lining residential lanes, while beautiful, make a poor substitute for much of the U.S. So when a series is filmed outside these settings, it can immediately distinguish the show in an overcrowded landscape while enhancing a show's sense of authenticity.
Even though I've never stepped foot in the areas in which I Am Not Okay With This was filmed, I am from Ohio, and have family from the southeastern part of the state, so the streets down which Sydney walks on her way home from school are similar to streets that I, and many others from the Midwest or Appalachia, have walked down in our own lives. This instantly creates a sense of familiarity. It's almost ridiculous to think that a simple change in fauna or topography can do a lot to create a sense of place, set a show apart, or spark a connection with a viewer, but it's true; imagine the possibilities if more TV shows were able to film in the places they're actually set.
Of course, I do not expect everyone will have a strong connection to the series simply because of its setting or its filming location. The green, rolling hills and the trusses of the Brownsville Bridge or arches of the George Westinghouse Bridge, both of which appear in the series, likely won't strike a chord with someone from Miami or a teen from Bozeman. But the Rust Belt setting is both distinct from most of what we see on TV and yet perfectly common for an area of America that's rarely (or often unfairly) represented on TV. And this effectively grounds the show, even with its supernatural elements, while the narrative itself speaks to a universal truth: adolescence can be overwhelming to the point of alienation.
At the start of the series, we learn that Sydney's father died by suicide the spring before, and this traumatic event has naturally had a profound impact on her life, both at school, where she does not have many friends to lean on because she's moved around a lot, and at home, where her mother ( Kathleen Rose Perkins), a waitress at a diner in town, relies on Sydney to help run the household and take care of her younger brother, Liam (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong). Although she's suffering, Sydney refuses to speak with anyone about her growing anger, loneliness, and resentment, so her guidance counselor suggests she write her thoughts in a diary to "help with her moods" (these diary entries play out as Sydney's voice-over narration in the series). This will, her counselor hopes, allow Sydney to have a normal high school experience, if such a thing even exists.
Not everyone shares Sydney's trauma, but the physical and psychological changes that occur during our teen years are universal. It's easy to relate to the swirling maelstrom of emotions and hormones that carry Sydney through her day-to-day life even if we haven't experienced a loss such as hers. So when Sydney's feelings of anger and jealousy over her best (and pretty much only) friend, Dina ( Sofia Bryant), dating Brad (Richard Ellis), the school's popular dickhead athlete, begin to manifest themselves as telekinesis, it's a perfect, if obvious, metaphor for the overwhelming experience of growing up.
As the season progresses and Sydney continues to keep her emotions locked up, and this includes not acknowledging her growing feelings for Dina, her telekinetic powers intensify until she's unable to control them. This results in great bursts of energy that wreak havoc and destruction on nearly every aspect of Sydney's life, something familiar to anyone who's experienced the hell of being a teenager and trying to find their place in the world while lacking the ability to properly express themselves.
Only one other person knows the truth about Sydney's burgeoning powers, a neighbor boy named Stanley ( Wyatt Oleff, It) who has a deep appreciation for vinyl records and VHS tapes, views high school and all that it entails as a form of live theater, and, of course, harbors a crush on Sydney. He more or less raises himself while his father drives an 18-wheeler, and because they are both lonely, social outcasts in their own way, Sydney and Stan naturally gravitate toward one another, sharing their deepest secrets and finding comfort in a shared sense of loneliness.
At just 30 minutes an episode, I Am Not Okay With This doesn't cover a lot of ground and essentially feels like a prelude to a much larger and deeper story. Ordinarily I'd advocate for short runtimes and short seasons, but the brevity of the season becomes a problem when the series hints that Sydney's telekinesis isn't just a metaphor for the familiar pains of adolescence but also potentially mental illness.
This development comes directly from the comic, in which Sydney suffers from depression and dies by suicide after struggling to connect with friends and family and being unable to cope with trauma and an accompanying loss of control. On the page, her powers almost felt superfluous to the story, and her death was a harrowing commentary on the ways in which society continues to fail the people who need it most. In the show, Sydney's powers appear to be more integral to the overall narrative, which for the most part is less dark and crippling than its source material -- in fact, Netflix is marketing it as John Hughes meets a superhero movie. Therefore, Sydney's destructive tendencies tend to work better when they're the manifestation of familiar teenage angst compounded by trauma rather than hinting they might be the result of a serious, unaddressed mental health issue that could one day also eventually lead to suicide.
Not yet understanding where Sydney's powers come from makes sense from a business point of view; it is in Netflix's best interest to leave questions unanswered and keep viewers wanting more. But without properly addressing some of the show's larger themes in the first season, the implication that Sydney's powers are the result of a mental illness has the potential to feel irresponsible at best and tragic at worst, especially given the way the LGBTQ community has been treated in the past. A second season could easily and responsibly address Sydney's mental state, and given the lingering trauma of her father's death and the way the first season ultimately ends, it feels impossible this won't eventually come up should Netflix renew the show. But perhaps it would have made more sense to hold all hints of this explanation until they could be fully addressed.
Still, despite this misstep, I Am Not Okay With This is an easy-to-watch coming-of-age series backed by a great soundtrack featuring songs by The Kinks, Karen Dalton, and more that seem to perfectly and magically meld with the show's visuals. The themes the series tackles aren't inherently novel or unique, and Sydney can be a frustrating heroine at times, but I'd argue that's the point and also why the show ultimately succeeds as a vehicle for teenage ennui. Here's to hoping a second season is in the cards and will start answering some of the questions created by this first one.
TV Guide Rating: 3.5/5
I Am Not Okay With This is now streaming on Netflix.