Am I OK? review – Dakota Johnson excels in uneven coming out film
Directors Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne pair an intimate portrait of female friendship with the bittersweet revelations of coming out in one’s 30s
Am I OK?, from the married directors Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne, attempts to put a fresh spin on the coming-out film, a sub-genre that often centers adolescents or works against conservative family; think Love, Simon, But I’m a Cheerleader, Pariah or Happiest Season. The 86-minute film, penned by Lauren Pomerantz (a longtime writer for Ellen DeGeneres’s daytime show), couples the bittersweet revelations of coming out in one’s 30s, years after many in an accepting environment bloom, with the spiky tenderness of an intimate, platonic female friendship.
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Jane (Sonoya Mizuno) and Lucy (Dakota Johnson) are longtime best friends and partners in crime – it’s not disclosed for how long, but long enough for Jane to know the type of car Lucy wanted in high school (a Volvo) and for Lucy to read dispassionate Jane’s emotions through a quiver in her voice. The two are in their early 30s and more each other’s other half than anyone else, including Jane’s sweet, deferential boyfriend Danny (Jermaine Fowler). We see them opposite each other in their favorite diner booth, a yin-yang in the same bed, the other’s mirror in their regular yoga class.
When the British-accented Jane, who moved to the US as a teenager, abruptly decides to accept a work offer to move to London, Lucy cracks. The shock, along with several tequilas and an admission by Jane that she once kissed a girl in high school (Am I OK? is sharp when depicting the emotional carelessness of straight women’s dabbling for their own fun), prompts Lucy to admit something she’s tiptoed around for years: she’s attracted to women. It’s not a surprising confession even 20 minutes into the film, given that Lucy balks at a nervous advance from friend Ben (Whitmer Thomas) and warms under the touch of Brittany (Kiersey Clemons), an affectionate masseuse at the spa where she’s a receptionist.
The friends’ subsequent heart-to-heart – Lucy raw and embarrassed, Jane supportive, casual and apologetic that she didn’t ask sooner – is one of the film’s most moving, emotionally sharp scenes. “It just felt easier to keep it buried inside,” Lucy says through tears. “I feel so stupid and I don’t even know what I am.” It’s been a good Sundance for Dakota Johnson, who also stole the show as a thirtysomething single mother circling consequential decisions in Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth. Here, she plays Lucy as unburdened yet boiling with shame, repressed feelings humming at the surface; her reluctance to come out now, at 32, is both sweet and bruising.
It’s unclear, in the first third of the movie, if Lucy is so rocked by Jane’s announcement and jealous of her nascent bond with her annoying and phone-addled co-worker Kat (Molly Gordon) because of their best friendship or because of unconfessed romantic feelings. Thankfully, Pomerantz eschews a will-they-won’t-they plot or unrequited love between the two leads for thornier and more insightful threads: Lucy’s hesitant surrender to Brittany’s confusing flirtations, how Jane’s eagerness to help metastasizes into an instinct to control, and an eventual breakdown of communication between the two as things change.
Am I OK? is strongest when embedded in the two friends’ well-worn, effusive bond, in sickness or in health – when the fight comes the barbs are believably lacerating, the kind only best friends can wield. Such sensitive handling makes some odd, discordant beats more off-putting. Both Kat and Jane’s boss Stu (Sean Hayes) are caricatures of self-absorption; a scene in which Kat and Jane attend a “hammock retreat” hosted by Notaro’s Sheila, in a long and obvious gray wig, plays as an off-key and unnecessary parody of Nine Perfect Strangers that belongs to a different film.
Such diversions into full-on attempts at comedy distract from enticing depictions of Jane and Lucy’s gravitational bond and Lucy’s blossoming sense of self, but don’t derail them. By the end, as the two weigh whether to stay or go and what the future holds, Lucy and Jane’s banter flows in a familiar, comforting rhythm – the film finally finding its groove, all the sweeter for the time spent figuring it out.
Am I OK? is showing at the Sundance film festival with a release date yet to be announced