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Can Hollywood figure out Gen Z? This summer's movies are a major test

Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Of the three films, "Not Okay" is the most direct satire of contemporary online culture, starring Zoey Deutch as Danni Sanders, a photo editor for an online publication who longs to be a writer. In part to boost her online following and in part to impress a co-worker (Dylan O'Brien), she fakes a trip to Paris — where a real-life bombing incident rocks the city and leaves Danni to be be falsely hailed as a brave survivor. She strikes up a friendship with Rowan (Mia Isaac), who survived a school shooting and has become an advocate to stop gun violence, but Danni's lies soon begin to unravel.

"Not Okay" begins with a tongue-in-cheek content warning advising that the film contains "an unlikeable female protagonist," and sprinkled throughout the film are real-life internet personalities such as Caroline Calloway, Reece Feldman, Rocco Botte and Bestdressed. Shephard also makes a cameo appearance as part of an online shaming support group. (There is a joke about Lena Dunham too.)

"Something I found really heartening about the people that we worked with for cameos was that they immediately understood that the film was satirizing a culture and not specifically criticizing them," said Shephard. "While it is obviously very critical of internet culture, it's not intended to be like, 'It's influencers' fault' or 'Throw your phone in the ocean,' because the internet is a part of our reality now. And I really tried to paint all sides of how it can be used for the best and the worst behavior in all of us."

Both Shephard and Deutch are 27, on the millennial/Gen Z cusp, and Deutch noted her deeply felt relationship to online culture and its impact on her own personality.

"I do not remember my life before I existed online, which is such a kind of creepy sentence when you hear it at first. But it's the truth," said Deutch.

'The phones are here. They're not going anywhere'

 

The films all home in on this distinction between a presentational online persona and the actual self. The gulf between the two can be difficult to navigate.

"We get asked a lot on this press tour for 'Bodies' if we spend less time on our phones after working on this film," said Amandla Stenberg, already a showbiz vet at 23. "And that's really not what it's about, because the phones are here. They're not going anywhere.

"We have to figure out how to engage with social media responsibly, how to engage with it in a way that maintains humanity. The thing about these algorithms is they can so easily become echo chambers for the worst parts of ourselves. And it actually takes us, as a collective, to be the antithesis to that, to ... the AI that is shaping our world now, taking our biases and our insecurities and regurgitating it and feeding it back to us."

"Sharp Stick" uses a different gambit to illustrate the contrast between "real" and "mediated." As the film opens, glamorous images of actress Taylour Paige fill the screen, dancing seductively as a delightfully lascivious rap song plays. Then there is an abrupt cut to the vertical aspect ratio of filming on a phone as Paige moves awkwardly, trying to emulate a TikTok dance, and the illusion is shattered.

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