Things aren’t necessarily going well for 17-year-old Sydney Novak (Sophia Lillis) when viewers first meet her as the lead character on Netflix’s I Am Not Okay With This.
Sydney is struggling to make sense of her father’s suicide and managing a contentious relationship with her mother and younger brother, all while on a confusing journey with her sexuality when she realizes she’s actually attracted to one of her best friends Dina (Sofia Bryant). Not to mention Sydney’s enduring the usual high school hardships of bullies, detention, and trying to fit in.
Oh, and she also discovers she has secret superpowers that come alive when she’s especially emotional and angry.
“There’s so many teen and YA shows that explore different topics, but I think there’s something very real about our supernatural show that kind of allows people to relate to it a lot more,” Wyatt Oleff, who plays Sydney’s friend Stanley Barber, told BuzzFeed News. “Not everyone ends up happy. Not everything turns out the way it should be or you want it to be. Everything just kind of happens and whether it’s good or bad, the characters just have to deal with that.”
Created by Jonathan Entwistle and Christy Hall, I Am Not Okay With This started streaming on Netflix on Feb. 26, and if you haven’t been able to watch any of the episodes in the past few weeks, now is the perfect time to binge. Sophia Lillis said she loves playing the role of Sydney because not only does she relate to the character’s growing pains, but she also feels like she’s learned from Sydney’s experiences.
“[Sydney] also is very relatable in the sense that she is constantly getting into this trouble and she kind of has, not these not angsty issues, but she’s not the perfect child. But that’s what’s so lovable about her,” Lillis said on BuzzFeed News’ Twitter morning show, AM to DM. “She is constantly in trouble all the time and I just love how she tries to fight through, go through obstacles alone. Even though she doesn’t really talk with her friends or ask for help... She constantly tries to work through it alone even though everyone else around her is trying to help her much as they can.”
According to Lillis, she was thrilled to be working alongside Oleff again after starring in the 2017 horror film It together.
“I saw the process of trying to find the perfect Stanley. They were looking at many people and it was kind of hard to get that character right...and then Wyatt [Oleff] auditioned and I just thought, Oh, wow, I forgot he’s perfect for this role,” Lillis said. “He’s almost exactly like his character and he used that. He’s just great.”
Oleff said he’s learned a lot about himself from playing the role of Stanley, who he calls “an interesting fellow.”
“I put a lot of myself into that role and worked with Jonathan [Entwistle] a lot to create a very unique character, and I think I've taken away a sense of freedom that Stanley possesses,” Oleff said. “He’s very liberated and he feels very free to feel how he wants to feel, and that’s something I really admire and hope people take away from his character — just how much he knows himself and loves himself and because of that he’s capable of doing so many things.”
Sydney and Stanley’s characters start off in a budding romance onscreen — the two both have sex for the first time with each other — but Stanley’s crush on Sydney is ultimately unrequited once Sydney realizes she actually has a crush on Dina.
After Sydney comes to terms with her feelings for Dina, she tries to kiss her when the two are at a party, but the kiss isn’t reciprocated. Feeling rejected, Sydney storms out and leaves Dina to find her on-again, off-again boyfriend Brad Lewis (Richard Ellis), who’s a known jerk and also bullies Sydney.
The two friends eventually get back on the same page when they’re all in detention at school and Sydney continues to grapple with her feelings for Dina and her newfound realization that she likes girls. It all comes to a head in the final episode of Season 1 when Sydney and Dina go to their school dance together as friends, and when they slow-dance together Dina tells Sydney she did like the kiss they shared. But before they can further explore Dina’s admission, Brad interrupts the whole dance by embarrassing Sydney and reading her diary out loud.
Brad’s bullying angers Sydney so much that her superpowers cause her to make his head literally explode off his body, leaving his blood and guts stained on everyone’s clothes and causing complete chaos in the high school gymnasium.
Sofia Bryant said when she first read the script for I Am Not Okay With This, she was intrigued by Dina and “understood her and her way of thinking immediately.” She was also drawn to the show because of the range of topics it addresses, including Sydney and Dina’s LGBTQ storyline.
“Nothing is glossed over on this show. Every character is dealing with their own situation and their own problem. There’s no underlying idea that everyone is the same and going through the same thing,” Bryant said. “I think it’s truly important to have people see themselves on screen in a way where they can fully relate to it.”
Of all the characters in the series, Brad is one of the least likable. He has few redeeming qualities, as someone who cheats on his girlfriend, emotionally manipulates her, and also goes head-to-head with our heroine, Sydney. Ellis, who plays Brad, said his character is one example of how the show aims to reach younger audiences with a more authentic message about how being a teenager isn’t always a positive experience — there are bullies, there are hardships, but you can still work through it.
“I Am Not Okay With This isn’t a glamorized high school experience,” Ellis said. “l think the show does a really good job of making it so that the characters aren’t in a fairy tale. It’s real, it’s intimate, and it shows that no one is perfect.”
While Ellis’s character isn’t a great source of inspiration, he said that he looks to Sydney and her adolescent transformation as an important role model for viewers. Sydney’s superpowers are a metaphor, he said, for learning how to adapt to what life throws at you and embracing whatever it is that makes you unique and different.
“Ultimately, it’s OK to be exactly who you are,” Ellis said. “And as soon as you can accept that and come to terms with all of that, you can be really happy.”