In Heathers, Winona Ryder’s Veronica Sawyer laments in perfect deadpan, “Dear Diary, my teen angst bullsh*t has a body count” — an iconic line that takes on a whole new meaning on I Am Not Okay With This, which just premiered on Netflix.
It revolves around the teenager Sydney Novak, who’s grieving the death of her father, navigating a tumultuous relationship with her mother, and feeling a little left out after her only friend starts spending more time with the biggest jerk in school. Oh, and she may be developing telekinetic powers fueled by her rage.
“I think there’s just something super interesting about that particular time where everything is the most dramatic it can ever be,” says showrunner Jonathan Entwistle. “Seemingly very small things that can happen in your life take on a bigger meaning when you’re in high school. Everything can be kind of life and death.”
The seven-episode series is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Charles Forsman — it’s the second page-to-screen collaboration between the author and Jonathan, after The End of the F***ing World.
“It’s very easy to adapt his work to the screen,” Jonathan says, calling the art in the graphic novels “cinematic.” He took special care in creating the world inhabited by Sydney, including choosing a location in rural suburbia that’s far from the shiny cities you see in glossy teen soaps or superpowered blockbusters; in his words, downtrodden but beautiful in its own way.
It’s also difficult to tell when the events of the show are taking place. “I feel it’s very important for the future,” Jonathan says. “I would like people to go back and look at my work and not be able to place when it was made.” The focus, according to him, then shifts solely to the story and the style: “If you can’t place it, you care more about learning about when and how the world was created.”
Being a teenager is not as easy as High School Musical. It’s important for people dealing with the same problems to see them represented truthfully on television, of having that moment to connect to a real teenager on screen.
Much of what makes I Am Not Okay With This so effective is lead actress Sophia Lillis’ tender but powerful performance as Sydney. Her audition process was spent “trying to find who Sydney is and kind of put myself into that character,” she recalls. “I wanted to add my own interpretation (because) I always like to make the character my own. I like to relate to the character as much as possible.”
Sydney in the book is more of a louder personality, but Sophia “brought something that was a little bit more vulnerable and more like she was being haunted by her superpowers,” Jonathan says.
Together, they collaborated to bring the best version of Sydney to life. “We were able to re-craft the character to match her strength. So for me it was making sure that we were able to have this effect with her where she was losing control but she was somehow trying to maintain control.”
The show reunites Sophia with her It co-star Wyatt Oleff, who plays another Stanley — this time Sydney’s neighbor who supports her and becomes her friend through her time of change and confusion.
“I feel like our characters didn’t interact much and we played much different characters in It,” says Wyatt. “I believe that having these characters that are pretty true to ourselves interact onscreen was very seamless for us, so we had a lot of fun just working together and goofing around.”
As teenagers themselves — Sophia is 18 and Wyatt is 16 — they say working on the show has helped them through their own experiences growing up. Wyatt shares that he finds Stanley’s self-love and self-acceptance important.
“He’s exactly who he wants to be,” he says. Wyatt, in his words, is working on himself to achieve the same thing. “I think there’s something about knowing yourself, so hopefully I can continue on that journey and be just like Stanley.”
“I want to be also just like Stanley,” Sophia joins in with a laugh. “I think he’s great. He knows himself so well. And I feel like he is so confident in everything that he does.”
Sydney, on the other hand, “is very relatable in the sense that she tries to do her best and tries so hard to fix things, and be a good person. There are times where nothing goes right and she may mess up but she still keeps this positive attitude… and you really look up to her; even though she keeps messing up it’s something that everyone can really take away from.”
The show tackles issues of self-identity, sexuality and mental health in a way that Jonathan says is not prescriptive. “Being a teenager is not as easy as High School Musical,” says Wyatt, adding he believes it’s important for people dealing with the same problems to see them represented truthfully on television, of “having that moment to connect to a real teenager on screen.”
The cast and crew took a lot of inspiration from John Hughes’ classic teen movies, and viewers might see a little bit of Carrie and the above-mentioned Heathers, too. Jonathan points out the similarities between Stanley and Duckie from Pretty in Pink as well as Sydney and, well, every iconic Molly Ringwald character. What they’ve made is a coming-of-age story that’s as hopeful as it is (outwardly) cynical — but with plenty more to it than meets the eye.
“I think we’ve created something that is a little darker,” Wyatt says. Sydney and Stanley and the rest of the kids in their school get their own Breakfast Club moments, but “the difference here is that not everyone just gets along in the end.”
“The whole show is a kind of allegory for what it means to grow up,” Jonathan says. Through I Am Not Okay With This, they wanted to tell a superhero origin story through the lens of coming-of-age and classic teen movie tropes and archetypes.
Things can get really difficult in an ordinary, unremarkable teenager’s life — what more when you add superpowers on top of that. Any Spider-Man or Young Avengers or even Stranger Things fan (and so many others) can tell you that it’s not an entirely groundbreaking concept, but what sets Sydney’s story apart is exactly how she herself works through these developments in her life.
As Jonathan puts it, “What does it mean if you’re a kid with superpowers, and Professor X does not show up to take you to his Academy… (and there’s) nobody to guide you?”
“You think it’s going to be the ending of what a John Hughes film will be like but something totally different happens and everything goes wildly out of control,” Sophia adds. “And suddenly the story changes.”
I Am Not Okay With This streams on Netflix.