Sydney — the teenage heroine of the new shot-in-Pittsburgh Netflix show “I Am Not Okay With This” — has problems.
She’s new at school in a small Pennsylvania town. She’s introverted, unpopular and uncomfortable in her own skin. She doesn’t get along with her mother — or anyone, except for her best friend Dina — and Dina’s dating Brad, who’s the worst. There’s a boy down the street, who’s weird and wears a lot of polyester, but she isn’t sure how she feels about him, or boys in general. She’s angry all the time.
Oh, and she also can destroy things with her mind. Anything.
“I Am Not Okay With This” is like the nightmare world of “Carrie” (1976) juxtaposed with the teenage dream of a John Hughes movie, set in the present day. A recurring premonition of a blood-covered Sydney makes the “Carrie” comparison fairly explicit.
Sydney is played by Sophia Lillis, who previously appeared in “It” and “Gretel & Hansel.”
Co-stars Sofia Bryant, who plays Dina, and Richard Ellis, who plays Brad, were back in Pittsburgh recently to talk about the show, which debuts on Netflix Feb. 26. It’s from the producers of the mega-hit “Stranger Things,” and based on a graphic novel by Charles Forsman.
Bryant has appeared in “The Good Wife” and “Bluebloods,” and Ellis has been on “Veronica Mars,” but this was a big step forward in their careers.
“For both of us, we finally had a chance to sink our teeth into something,” says Ellis.
Teenage angst, of course, automatically comes with its own drama. The characters are just learning about who they are while navigating things like sex, drugs, alienation, family strife, and, of course, the hard-to-shake feeling of not fitting in.
“I’d say the show handles these issues in a very mature way,” says Ellis. “It doesn’t necessarily sugarcoat anything, or over-explain, or make it melodramatic. It’s kind of a snapshot of a slice-of-life for normal high schoolers. Then you factor in the fact that Sydney has superpowers that she can’t quite control, it makes for a very interesting conundrum.”
The character of Dina seems to have it all together, mostly.
“Dina is a bubbly, effervescent, super-fun, eccentric best friend to Sydney,” explains Bryant. “Lots of times, I see myself in Dina. I definitely take notes from her sometimes. She’s just super-outgoing and super-comfortable in herself. Sometimes, I feel like, ‘Today I need to channel some more of that energy.’ We could definitely be sisters.”
Her boyfriend Brad, on the other hand, is the brash football star who begins to drive a wedge between Dina and Sydney.
“Brad is the golden boy,” says Ellis. “He’s the epitome of everybody who’s ever peaked in high school. He’s condescending, narcissistic, entitled. He can be oddly charming, but that depends on what side of his personality he wants to show you.”
The show was shot in Brownsville, Fayette County, and in various locations around Pittsburgh. The Brownsville sign is a prominent meeting point in the show. Though it’s portrayed as a prototypical decaying Rust Belt town, the lush, green mountainsides and riversides give the show a distinctively strong sense of place. This isn’t John Hughes’ pristine, middle-class suburbia.
“I was coming from Manhattan, New York, so it was a very different summer experience for me,” says Bryant. “I was out of the humid, gross city, and it was really nice to be here. It was really great for the show — we got to really utilize a lot of the natural elements.”
“For me, on the contrary, I’m from small-town Connecticut, so it had this nostalgic, at-home feeling,” notes Ellis.
When they weren’t acting, they were eating, says Ellis. Or going to Dave & Buster’s or Kennywood.
Portraying a teenager is a little easier when you are, in fact, a teenager.
“While shooting, I was (a teenager),” says Bryant.
You don’t have to be a teenager to get the show, however.
“We’re telling it through these teenage characters, but we’re really speaking and discussing issues that everyone deals with, which makes the show really relatable,” says Bryant.