Growing up as I did in a kind of miniature outpost of North Korea established by my mother in early 90s Oxfordshire, I wasn’t really allowed an adolescence. It was, like Top of the Pops or having butter instead of margarine, very much considered a despicable modern invention designed to encourage self-indulgence and weaken the state. But according to everything I have heard, seen and read about the phenomenon since, it seems to be quite the developmental stage. I congratulate all who made it through this volatile leg of life’s journey safely.
The latest representative of this angst-ridden, hormone-soaked time is come to Netflix. Sydney Novak (Sophia Lillis, last seen on the small screen as the young Camille Preaker in Sharp Objects and as Nancy Drew unravelling the mystery of a hidden staircase in a cinema near you last year) is the teenager in perennial emotional flux at the heart of I Am Not Okay With This. It is the second television adaptation helmed by Jonathan Entwistle of a Charles Forsman graphic novel – the first was The End of the F***ing World – and their collaboration has once more borne fine fruit.
Still reeling from her father’s recent suicide (in the basement of their home), Sydney has a lot to grapple with. There’s her family’s sudden relocation to a stultifying small town; a mother made brutally unsympathetic to her eldest child by grief and having to work endless shifts to survive; desertion by her best friend, Dina (Sofia Bryant), for the world of boys and popularity now that “she got her braces taken off and her boobs suddenly arrived”. And a stubborn outbreak of zits on her thighs. She has also become the object of affection for the local nerd, Stanley Barber (Wyatt Oleff), even though the viewer, if not yet Sydney, suspects that her own true affections lie more Dina-wards than anywhere else. It is, as I believe the young people say, A Lot.
Small wonder, then, that the roiling mass of emotions inside her seeks an outlet. But instead of joining the military or working on her citizen’s loyalty ranking, Sydney’s inner turmoil starts manifesting in more televisually useful ways, such as accidentally inducing a nosebleed in Dina’s terrible jock boyfriend Brad (Richard Ellis) as the unbearable pair snuggle opposite her in the diner. Soon, to her consternation, Sydney is unintentionally blasting road signs out of the way and blowing holes in walls whenever she becomes antagonised.
As the series goes on, Sydney must learn to control her growing telekinetic powers, especially as larger plot dynamics and dangers grow, but the true pleasure of the thing lies in Lillis’s wonderful performance, which manages to convey the depths and numbness of loss beneath the layers of more ordinary teenage fury and frustration all lying beneath the traditional pose of sardonic disaffection. You want to smack her, champion her, comfort her and be her all at the same time.
We have seen the central conceit – superpowers as metaphor for changing bodies, encroaching adulthood and all its confusions and contradictions – many times before, of course. Boys got the Golden Age superheroes; girls had to wait their turn but have been amassing stock ever since Carrie, whose DNA is obviously embedded in I Am Not Okay With This, along with a bit of Buffy Summers and Eleven from Stranger Things (with whom the new series shares some producers). But this show has its own charm, confidence and style, which come in great part from the other strand of its double helix. Sydney, especially in the voiceover excerpts from the diary she has been instructed to keep by her guidance counsellor, is a descendant of some of the scabrous outsider greats. There are snippets of Daria in there, Freaks and Geeks’ Lindsay (Stanley would fit in nicely with them, too), Janis from Mean Girls and Angela Chase, linchpin of the much-lamented My So-Called Life. And you might catch the occasional whiff of Heathers, too.
You could call it “I’m Not Okay With This F***ing World.”
But until then, the story of Sydney remaking her world and coming to grips with herself, her friends, her sexuality and the zits on her thighs will do, and very nicely indeed.