Sundance Review: 'Am I OK?' Answers Its Own Question with a Yes Directed by Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne
Starring Dakota Johnson, Sonoya Mizuno, Jermaine Fowler, Kiersey Clemons, Tig Notaro, June Diane Raphael
Published Jan 27, 2022Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne's directorial feature debut begins in an ingenious way — with an opening credits montage that evokes life at its most carefree. It's reminiscent of the early years of your 20s, when your adult life is just beginning and you can still have fun before things get real. A time before you're expected to finish school, move out, get a job and settle down. When you don't have that, you feel like you've done something wrong, and ask the titular question, "Am I okay?" It's all just pressure, but you don't have to succumb to it.
What the married duo of Notaro and Allynne, along with writer Lauren Pomerantz, explore are the complexities of self-discovery through the lens of coming out, wholeheartedly capturing what many queer people feel or once felt. But much more poignantly, this love story about female friendship and coming-of-age transcends sexuality; it's relatable viewing for everyone.
"I just don't want to," is a good reason but never a good enough answer. Why doesn't she want to sleep with her guy best friend? Is her lack of desire for intimacy rooted in some trauma from her childhood? It can't possibly be because she doesn't like men, right? This is what Lucy (Dakota Johnson) has to deal with. In her best friend Jane's (Sonoya Mizuno) eyes, it's unfathomable that she wouldn't want to sleep with men. It never crosses her mind that she may not be heterosexual. Am I Ok?'s script and Johnson's performance capture the anxiety and awkwardness of being closeted — or having not yet explored your sexuality — in a relatable, honest way. Lucy and Jane speak as though they know each other like the back of their hand, but Jane was kept in the dark about something that Lucy thought easier to keep inside, as many do.
Lucy's confession isn't something Jane predicted, and neither is Jane's decision to move across the pond to open an office in London for her marketing firm. These best friends are at different points in their lives. Jane seems to have everything figured out. She has a successful career, has a loving boyfriend Danny (Jermaine Fowler), and is adamant in her belief that he's coming to London with her and will propose. Lucy, on the other hand, is an artist at heart who works as a receptionist at a spa. Single, too, of course. But Jane won't leave until Lucy kisses her first girl. While at different ends of the "goals" scale, they are both making life-changing decisions. But this happening for both of them at the same time highlights their differences.
"Why don't you think you have to date like everyone else?" Jane asks. Lucy knows she doesn't have to date if she don't want to. Jane and society make us feel that the only way to be happy is to be with another person, and this is one of the many misconceptions that the filmmakers challenge. Some friends don't know their boundaries, and Jane wants to control every situation. It's not up to other people to push someone forward, despite that they do it out of love. Lucy reaches a point where she's no longer afraid to call Jane out on her domineering nature. Their sudden conflict leads to a falling out, and their friendship may not survive.
Am I OK? succeeds most strongly in its dialogue — most specifically because of what it omits. Lucy refuses to say the word "lesbian" or "bisexual." This may seem like a minute detail to many, but this speaks powerfully to the fear many still experience when coming out. Labels don't need to be important, of course, but that isn't often discussed on-screen. What sends Lucy down the Google rabbit hole of "Am I gay?" quizzes is the pretty and flirtatious Brittany (Kiersey Clemons), a masseuse at her work. Through this relationship, the filmmakers explore how much harder it is for her to simply have a crush when she likes women. There's the likely chance that your crush doesn't like girls. And sometimes, when they feign interest, they just want to experiment. Many people have been through it and it sucks, but it's part of the journey and this is an experience that could only be conveyed by those who have lived it themselves.
This may all seem very serious, but this is ultimately a feel-good film, with plenty of awkward humour that works well with Lucy's discomfort. The film is anchored by two sincere performances, and their chemistry is palpable. Mizuno makes the viewer reflect on what it was like coming out to their own best friend — who may have been unable to really relate, but still tried the best they could. Johnson is a natural when it comes to expressing the anger, self-hatred and confusion that would befall anyone realizing at 32 that they're different. The best scenes are between her and Clemons, with all those familiar glances of longing and bouts of shyness in her presence. When the film moves away from Lucy, it drags a bit, but both leads get an arc that ties the film in a sweet bow.
How life changes can be frightening, but so is the path to life coming together. Some people take longer to fully discover who they are or what their path is, and that's okay. The film answers its own question with a resounding yes.
The 2022 Sundance Film Festivals runs online from January 20 to 30.