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If Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne’s directorial debut Am I Ok? had been released in 2015 it would have been sweet and mediocre — in 2022 it’s insufferable.
Dakota Johnson plays Lucy, a 32-year-old painter and masseuse receptionist whose primary relationship is her co-dependent friendship with Jane (a charming Sonoya Mizuno). She never dates and doesn’t know why until two major events occur in her life — Jane announces that she’s moving to London and Kiersey Clemons starts working at her spa.
Lucy realizes she’s a lesbian and begins to spiral in all the expected ways. She feels embarrassed it took this long, timid on next steps, and generally overwhelmed. She’s relied on her friendship with Jane to fill the spot where romance could be but now Jane is leaving and it’s time to move on. It’s time to move on to Kiersey Clemons’ character Brit who has been flirting like she might want to make out.
Making an indie romcom that’s actually about friendship hasn’t been a novelty since Frances Ha (2013) ripped off Girlfriends (1978). Making one of the women straight and one of them gay hasn’t been a novelty since Life Partners (2014). Combining that with a coming out story hasn’t been a novelty since Almost Adults (2016). And as far as it being a coming-of-age movie about a woman in her 30s, the only thing the canon of lesbian cinema has more of than actual coming-of-age movies are tales of delayed discovery.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a movie being formulaic and cliché. Not every queer movie needs to break new ground. But when a movie stars Dakota Johnson and hits the same story beats as so many other movies, it can’t get away with being mediocre. It can’t get away with just having a solid cast and a good soundtrack. It can’t get away with writing so bad from longtime Ellen Show writer Lauren Pomerantz that it feels like revenge against Johnson for ruining her former boss’ career.
It’s not just that the script has less laughs than 30 seconds of a Notaro stand up special. It’s also an absolute mess on a character and structural level. Every plot turn feels contrived — drama for drama’s sake — and the characters feel less like people than like lists of stated personality traits deepened only by good performances. The movie wants us to believe Jane is controlling — they say this explicitly — but we don’t actually feel that. The way the movies gives examples— like with her saying to eat a certain muffin — feel like additions suggested by a bad screenwriting class rather than true representations of those qualities.
Clemons’ character, especially, is totally baffling. Of course, a first gay crush being filled with confusion is realistic. But the ways Brit is confusing feel twisted for plot convenience rather than grounded in real experiences. Brit is not a person — she’s a charming series of conflicting plot devices that help Lucy on her journey.
If I seem particularly harsh on what is ultimately a harmless 86 minute Sundance dramedy, it’s because so many other queer women movies deserve the press this will inevitably receive. It’s because this movie is not only dated in its plot but in its inclusivity. The only scene we get in a queer space takes place in a mythical LA lesbian bar populated by only one person who is masc of center. Everyone else is femme. Everyone is thin. The first time a fat person is on-screen it’s toward the end of the movie to mock the way a man is shoving food in his mouth. The film also repeatedly connects lesbianism to vaginas. Which, look, it’s not unrealistic for a straight woman and a newly out cis woman to be hyper-focused on genitalia. But maybe we don’t need any more movies with characters where this would be realistic. Or maybe we could cut those lines because it’s not like anything else in this movie was grounded in realism.
It’s great that since the early 2010s — when this movie should’ve been made — white filmmakers have learned to not have all-white casts. But placing talented actors of color into poorly written parts surrounded by an almost all-white production team isn’t really changing anything. This movie is still indicative of gay cinema’s most regressive instincts.
Sometimes when I’m assigned to cover a movie, I request that somebody else take over. I know my voice isn’t always needed in the response to a film. But this is the first time I considered doing that not because of marginalized experiences I lack but because of marginalized experiences I have.
I can imagine a lot of cis women — especially cis women who look like Dakota Johnson — really enjoying this movie. I can imagine this being a breezy good time for people who don’t cringe when vaginas are equated to womanhood or fat people exist only to be mocked. Or I can even imagine this being a meaningful film for women whose experiences mirror Lucy’s — and who haven’t seen a lot of other lesbian films.
I know that Am I OK? was not made for me. And that’s okay. I’m glad Lauren Pomerantz got to tell her story even if she didn’t do it well. I just wish more of us got the same opportunities to tell our stories. I wish the dozens of queer films released each year weren’t still overwhelmingly about cis white thin people without disabilities.
But I shouldn’t blame this one movie for those frustrations. And if you’re like me and don’t respond to this one, just know there are so many more movies than the ones starring famous actors. You don’t need to limit yourself to the queer cinema that trends on Twitter. Some of our stories are being told — some of us are even doing it well.