When life manically defies expectations: Thoughts on I am Not Okay With this

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

There is nothing new under the mutant superhero sun … or is there?

It appears that in a world where you might think X-Men, Legion, The Gifted and even The Incredibles and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have said all there is said about diverging away from the evolutionary mainstream (yes, yes, I know there are mutations there but not cinematically worthy ones thank you), along comes I Am Not Okay With This which definitively and imaginatively proves the genre still has a lot of life to it.

What makes this particular iteration of the ordinary-person-develops-extraordinary-powers, which is based on a 2017 graphic novel of the same name by Charles Forsman, so fantastically appealing is that it takes a big step away from the spectacular and the global and takes a deep dive into the intimate and the personal.

The very personal angle in this case belongs to 17-year-old Sydney “Syd” Novak (Sophia Lillis) who is grappling with some huge issues, her father’s suicide and the resultant emotional clusterfuck chief among them, and who most definitely does not have time to develop mutant superhero powers, thank you very much.

Barely smiling, and at war with her mother – both of them are mired in the same grief but unable talk it through, well initially at least, they have retreated to opposing sides, sniping uselessly at each other as they go – Syd’s only real rays of sunshine are her sweet, articulate younger brother Liam akak “Goop” (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong) and her best friend Dina (Sofia Bryant) who is bright and shiny and basically everything glum, sardonic Syd is not.

And yet they are friends through thick and thin, have both arrived in the same small unremarkable Pennsylvanian town at the same time and bonding over their shared newness.

The other bright spot on the social horizon is the brilliantly quirky Stanley “Stan” Barber, a 70s-loving, retro-clothing wearing love of movies on VHS who loves a band called Bloodwitch (they don’t exist in real life but the show went to a huge amount of trouble to make it look and sound like they do), is Syd’s sort of neighbour and really, I mean really, likes her. (The music from a lot of really cool, very real bands punctuate the storyline which, like a lot of modern soundtrack-heavy shows, benefits greatly from a well-selected array of songs.)

In a number of key ways Syd has good things going on in her life but the presence of idiotic show pony, jock Bradley “Brad” Lewis (Richard Ellis), who somehow unaccountably ends up as Dina’s boyfriend and taker of her “V-card” one hot and steamy night, means that school isn’t anywhere near as enjoyable as it could be.

Overshadowing it all are powers Syd slowly but surely starts manifesting when she gets really angry or frightened or sad, psychokinetic abilities which see her able to fling bowling bowls across an alley, street signs along an abandoned railway track and rip cladding off her bedroom wall.

Syd keeps trying to tell herself it’s all in her mind but we all know it’s not (and deep down she does too) and there could a million different reasons why it’s happening, the kind that comic book creators love and which Stan rather hilariously tries to uncover with a stack of graphic novels one very memorable night in the bowling alley where he works.

I Am Not Okay With This is clearly not your average mutant superhero show and its capacity for irreverence, mainly courtesy of Syd’s dismissively humourous ways with words, and humanity means that it upends things quite nicely in the pursuit of a story which is heartfelt and resonant in some pretty arrestingly watchable and affecting ways.

Trust me, this is not your grandmother’s X-Men.

The people who developed the graphic novel into a winningly unique limited-run seven-episode series, Jonathan Entwistle and Christy Hall, have deftly combined a trope-heavy high school coming of age tale with your usual assortment of jocks, nerds, and no-zoners like Syd, with a grief-laden tale of one young person coming to grips with the kind of pain and loss that by rights a 17-year-old should never come into contact with, emergent explorations of queer sexuality and an almost Carrie-like horror element that isn’t and centre but which is, thanks to Syd’s tree-felling powers, largely inescapable too.

What emerges to the fore as you watch I Am Not Okay With This is a tangible sense of humanity – here is a young woman, trying to cope with death, family dislocation, nascent queerness, bullies, and an overwhelming change in her sense of self that understandably sends her into a existential crisis of epic proportions.

Syd is, without a doubt the beating heart of this perfectly-judged series, which with only seven 20-25 minute each episodes at its disposal has to tell a tight but meaningful tale.

It doesn’t allow to meandering or narrative dead-ending and I Am Not Okay With This makes the most of its elegant storytelling style by sensibly placing Syd front and centre.

That might seem to make sense since she is after all the one with all the emerging powers but the brilliance of I Am Not Okay With This is that it doesn’t focus its attention solely on Syd’s way with stop signs and bleeding noses.

Rather, it aims its narrative target on the fact that this kind of discovery, that you harbour hitherto unknown powers, would send a rocket into the established order of things for anyone but even more so for someone caught in the maelstrom of lingering grief (it never goes away; don’t let anyone tell you differently) and that you would, as a result, not be okay with this, not even a little bit.

Syd is at a catastrophic loss when it comes to dealing with her new upside world and it’s the commitment of I Am Not Okay With This to exploring this in all its murky and bloody unsettling glory that makes it such a winning show to watch.

That, and the fact that it dives headlong into examining how massive sudden changes in who we are, or think we will be, are not easy to deal with, process or come out the other end of, no matter what anyone tells you.

I Am Not Okay With This tells it story with a noticeable sense of quirkiness, fun and sass true but there’s also a considerable amount of real, grounded, gritty humanity at work too that makes this mutant-in-the-making show a stellar breakout of the genre and a wholly unique entry that understands that while super powers are whiz ban impressive, the greater and more emotionally impacting lies in how it affects the people with these powers who simply want to be normal but discover that’s no longer an option and have to either adapt and perish.

And as for the ending? Lordy but there are spoilers aplenty; suffice to say, I Am Not Okay With This goes out with a narrative bang that pays huge emotional dividends but also sets up Syd for the mother of all transformative journeys, the kind that will be worth watching well down the metal-bending, soul-searching road.

Posted In TV

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