Am I OK? Review: A Late Bloomer in La La Land

Technically, Los Angeles receptionist Lucy (Dakota Johnson), the passive singleton of Stephanie Allynne and Tig Notaro’s frustratingly childish rom-com “Am I OK?,” is 32 years old. Emotionally, she’s as awkward as a freshman with her first pimple. Lucy has never been in love, never had a real relationship, and never ends her dates with anything more than a handshake. “I feel so stupid, I should have figured this out by now,” Lucy blurts to her best friend Jane (Sonoya Mizuno) after too much tequila makes her weepy about her sexual paralysis. “There must be a reason why I’ve barely done it?”

There is. She needs to stop shaking hands with men and start smooching women like Brit, the flirtatious masseuse (Kinsey Clemons) at her salon. That this revelation has only just hit Lucy adds to her angst — how embarrassing to come out now, she frets — and online quizzes that promise to resolve her sexuality aren’t helping. (One quiz hinges on whether she likes tennis, yes or no?) Instead, Lucy should take a hint from the way she continually sketches Brittany at work, or from how Brit acts toward her: teasing Lucy’s hair, leaning in for a kiss, and, at one point, sprawling across her lap like a stray kitten begging for a home.

But “Am I OK” is about inertia, not action. Lucy refuses to pursue Brit; Jane vows to apply pressure until she does. When Jane drags Lucy to a lesbian bar, she’s the one who winds up kissing a stranger on the dance floor and never wonders whether her chipper boyfriend (Jermaine Fowler) will mind. Eventually, the film will resolve that Jane is the most important relationship in Lucy’s life, and shift its focus to friendship over romance. (Johnson and Mizuno do have great repartee. They’re both quick with a prickly quip.) But for much of the running time, Lauren Pomerantz’s script, inspired by her own friendship with the film’s producer Jessica Elbaum, seems to hope that it must be fascinating watching flop-sweat Lucy moan about her paralysis. It isn’t, even with Johnson playing one of her stereotypical stunted Dakota Johnson characters, the kind of knotted-up-by-neuroses innocent that the talented actor imbues with life even when the surrounding movie lets her down, as it does here.

The film mistakes misery for empathy, and paralysis for the thrill of potential. It’s a character study that can’t even decide who Lucy is. Is she the beachy cool Cali girl of the opening montage, a fun friend who loves karaoke and cracking jokes during yoga? Or is she the insecure drag the character becomes when the film attempts to get serious, a humorless drip who stares blankly when Brit makes a joke about wearing a tight dress to the “clurb”? (How does she not get playful slang when she and Jane call tequila “tequils”?)

Over the course of the film, Lucy doesn’t expand; she shrinks. It’s one thing to ask Johnson’s character to wonder aloud if she’s never been happy. It’s another to flatten her into a black hole of nothingness and ask every other character in the film to pour energy into her hoping she’ll perk up. In one moment that passes for a major revelation, Lucy shakes up her standard brunch of a veggie burger and sweet potato fries by ordering — gasp! — an omelet. Only in the brief moments Johnson’s allowed to be alive — a hungry kiss, a kittenish first date, scenes where the camera, too, swoons to photograph something more than cheery L.A. sunshine — does this small story feel worth telling. A film based on, and made by real life friendship should feel this dimensional in every frame instead of pounding its characters into parody for the screen.

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