Netflix’s I Am Not Okay With This follows in the long tradition of comic book adaptations about people manifesting superpowers to tell coming-of-age stories about how hard it is to know yourself as your body begins to do and feel things you don’t understand. Sydney Novak (It and Sharp Objects star Sophia Lillis) is a burgeoning telekinetic, yes, but she’s also a hormonal teenager on the brink of realising something profoundly important about herself.
In a twist on Charles Forsman’s source-material comic book, the Netflix version of Sydney isn’t at all aware of her strange abilities when we’re introduced to her in the series. Following her father's death, it takes everything for Sydney to maintain her difficult relationship with her mother (Kathleen Rose Perkins), stay strong for her younger brother Liam (Aidan Wojtak-Hissong), and make her way through high school without giving in to her fury-tinged depression or simply falling to pieces. It all becomes that much more difficult as she realises that she can move things with her mind.
Initially, Sydney is certain that letting anyone know about the changes she’s going through would lead to her being singled out and locked away. And so, like so many comic book characters before her, Sydney hides her truth and does all she can to go through the motions of life pretending to be a regular teenager, all the while knowing that the power inside her is only going to grow stronger.
Sydney’s struggle to tamp down her powers runs parallel to her desire to hide her burgeoning queerness that begins to manifest itself as she watches her best friend Dina (Sofia Bryant) become romantically involved with her new boyfriend, popular jock Brad (Richard Ellis). Sydney and Dina share an intimacy that they both understand as being something that’s more than platonic, but because so much of Sydney’s identity is wrapped up in her needing to perform “normality,” being open about her feelings is something she can scarcely imagine.
Things are further complicated by the fact that while Sydney’s quite in love with Dina, the neighbourhood nerd Stanley Barber (It’s Wyatt Oleff) insists on trying to make moves on her. After initially engaging with his affections because once again, that’s what she thinks is the “normal” thing to do, she informs him she’s officially not interested. It comes as a surprise to both Sydney and Stan when they end up becoming friends and Sydney gets comfortable enough to let Stan in on her superpowered secret. Well, after he accidentally crashes his car as a result of one of her more emotional outbursts.
Rather than fast-tracking its way into a story about Sydney becoming a superhero, I Am Not Okay With This instead spends the bulk of its time focusing on the mundane realities of Sydney’s everyday life – like the difficulties she has at school and the moments when she feels the stress of having to look out for Liam. The only place that she feels safe expressing herself is in her diary, where she puts her thoughts to paper with the same kind of frankness that makes most people find her somewhat off-putting.
Unlike Forsman’s comic – where the nature of Sydney’s powers and the trauma they’ve caused her are laid bare fairly early in the story – Netflix’s series takes its time to reveal her inner truth because it’s something she’s still in the process of figuring out. As Sydney’s powers repeatedly flare up over the course of the series, it becomes increasingly more difficult for her to deny that they’re directly connected to her emotions, which are in a state of disarray because of the secrets she feels she needs to keep.
While it’d be understandable if Sydney saw her telekinesis as the major thing about herself to keep under wraps, the show instead focuses on her feelings for Dina and her strained relationship with her mum because those are actually the most important things in her life. Though the series does eventually get around to fleshing out its larger world and implying that Sydney is fated to become involved in something that might change the world, the first season ultimately ends up being about her journey to an upcoming school dance. In that sense, I Am Not Okay With This sometimes feels more like the breezy answer to Sex Education rather than something akin to an X-Men series like The Gifted or even Stranger Things, even if it does cover some serious topics.
(Note that you probably don’t want to watch the below video until you’ve seen the season finale.)
But in the final few scenes – as I Am Not Okay With This finally explains the meaning of its recurring shots of Sydney running away from her school, seemingly in a panic and covered in blood – the series becomes an arresting reflection of how terrifying being forced out of the closet (whether because of your sexuality or the fact that you’re a superhuman) can be.
In those moments, the parallels between I Am Not Okay With This and many classic X-Men stories, ranging from the Dark Phoenix Saga to Iceman’s “coming out” in X2, are hard not to see. But I Am Not Okay With This never loses sight of the reality that secret superpowers are an imperfect metaphor for one’s secret queerness, in the same way that the X-Men franchise isn’t really the perfect allegory for the civil rights movement people sometimes like to believe it is. Instead, I Am Not Okay With This leans into the much more relatable idea that Sydney’s a complicated, dynamic person with a multitude of different feelings and priorities that sometimes conflict with one another.
Sydney’s got nowhere near all the answers as the first season draws to a close, and the new questions on her mind point to her future becoming much more perilous in time. But Sydney’s learning that’s just how life is sometimes, and all there is to do is hunker down and power through it.
Featured image: Netflix