“I’m a boring 17-year-old white girl,” Syd tells us early in Netflix’s new I Am Not Okay With This, before adding, “I’m not special, is what I’m trying to say.”
But a few episodes later, she warns us, and herself: “If I rage, bad things happen.”
Rage is a threat to — and from — many a 17-year-old girl, special or not. It is often the only sane response to the insane and unfair world around them. But the very act of unleashing that rage can also make that world less stable and fair, as the rage, rather than its object, becomes all anyone cares about.
For Syd (played by It‘s Sophia Lillis), the repercussions of her rage are even greater. Because when Syd loses her temper, people can die — literally. You see, I Am Not Okay With This isn’t just a story of teen angst, but of superpowered teen angst. Over the course of the seven-episode first season, Syd discovers that she has abilities more like a character out of a comic book (or a Stephen King novel), and that they tend to manifest themselves most often — and most dangerously — when she gets angry.
And that’s only one of several aspects of Syd’s life to which the show’s title applies.
The series was adapted from a comic by Charles Forsman, whose work previously inspired a less fantastical story of adolescent anger in The End of the F***ing World. That show’s original lead director, Jonathan Entwistle, serves here as co-creator (with Christy Hall), and there’s a lot of understandable overlap in style and theme. The aesthetic is another throwback, full of Eighties tunes and John Hughes homages — including the recreation of an iconic Sixteen Candles shot in the middle of an episode that’s otherwise modeled on The Breakfast Club(*) — and allusions to other high-school stories from the era. (“Diary, I feel like I’m racking up a body count here,” Syd confesses at one point, phrasing the sentiment only slightly more delicately than Winona Ryder did to her own diary in Heathers.)
(*) As a card-carrying member of Generation X who gets fiercely territorial over history’s attempts to erase us (or, worse, merge us with the Baby Boomers), I have nothing but love for the music of Rick Springfield and Bryan Ferry and the comic misadventures of Ferris Bueller and Farmer Ted, among many others. But it feels like pop culture has been doing Eighties nostalgia for much longer than it ever did Sixties or Seventies, while the Nineties and Aughts remain mostly ignored (with exceptions like Looking For Alaska). Heck, this isn’t even the only Netflix teen dramedy in 2020 so far to load up on both Eighties references in general and a Breakfast Club tribute in particular, as Sex Education Season Two already covered this territory.
It’s also, like End of the F***ing World, a darkly comic story filled with wry voiceover narration that provides sharp contrast to what our heroine is saying and doing in front of her mother Maggie (Kathleen Rose Perkins), kid brother Liam (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong), and best friend Dina (Sofia Bryant). Syd is shouldering all the usual burdens of adolescence, plus some extra ones specific to her, like grief over her recently-deceased father, and resentment over how much time Dina has been spending with her new jock boyfriend Brad (Richard Ellis).
And, of course, the superpowers.
On that score, the series starts out repetitive to a fault, with the first three episodes following the exact same structure in terms of when and how her powers manifest. As is the case with all the more traditional superhero shows of the modern era, things get livelier once our heroine both accepts her powers and lets someone else in on the secret, but it takes a while to get there, despite relatively short half-hour installments. But even after Syd accepts how not normal she is, most of the other characters and conflicts are so familiar that the whole thing often feels like a collection of influences in search of a story.
What makes the show as watchable as it is for most of its compact first season is the sheer magnetism and comic verve of Sophia Lillis, and the chemistry she has with her friend and fellow It alum Wyatt Oleff as Stanley, the confidently weird kid with a transparent crush on Syd. (In other words, he’s Ducky from Pretty in Pink, though the question of which character would be the Blaine is more complicated than it seems at first.) Nothing feels new, or even a particularly inspired variation on something very familiar, but Lillis makes Syd’s vulnerability and fury palpable throughout, and there’s something disarmingly gentle in how Syd and Stanley get along.
There is one area where I Am Not Okay With This may have the previous Forsman adaptation beat: The End of the F***ing World was so perfect in its original run that the second season seemed besides the point. The new show, on the other hand, has barely gotten going when the finale ends, and its concluding chapter raises some intriguing questions for a potential sequel. Hopefully, a follow-up will offer a more robust story befitting the righteous anger of its heroine.
I Am Not Okay With This premieres February 26th on Netflix.