Many life-defining friendships likely have a moment when the two parties look at one another and say, “This should be a movie.” It so happens that writer Lauren Pomerantz and producer Jessica Elbaum, best friends since 2004, had the skill set to make that happen.
The sisterly bond shared by the women is the basis for “Am I OK?,” one of the most anticipated titles premiering at this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival. The indie stars Dakota Johnson and Sonoya Mizuno, surrogates for Pomerantz and Elbaum respectively, and is directed by work and life partners Stephanie Allynne and Tig Notaro. The film is the kind of bittersweet indie the festival is known for highlighting, with a message about the need to live in truth.
Pomerantz had settled into her comedy-writing career by the end of her 20s, contributing to “Saturday Night Live” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” At 30, however, something started gnawing at the edges of her identity.
“I kinda, sorta might like girls,” she recalls wanting to tell Elbaum. In creating the indecisive and self-effacing character of Lucy, Pomerantz drew upon some painful memories from that period of her life.
“There should not be a timeline in place for your sexuality,” says Pomerantz, who went through her awakening at 34. “It shouldn’t feel forced, but it’s hard because a lot of people do have it figured out.”
In “Am I OK?,” Mizuno’s Jane is an organized and fearless marketing executive who early on nabs a promotion at work that will take her from Los Angeles to London, while Johnson’s Lucy is an aspiring artist who spends her days at the front desk of a beachfront spa, pining after her flirty female co-worker. As the ground shifts around Lucy’s sexual identity, so do the power dynamics that have governed the best friends throughout their relationship.
Elbaum, founder and principal of Gloria Sanchez Prods., with credits including “Booksmart” and “Hustlers,” recalls how difficult it was to watch Pomerantz struggle through her process.
“It was such a relief when she finally [told me]. We were dancing around this thing. I would find myself trying and needling and waiting for the moment, but I was never going to confront her. It was a relief for both of us. Now there’s not a thing that we don’t talk about. Let alone a very big thing,” Elbaum says.
Johnson joined the project thanks to Notaro, who formed a friendship with the star after performing a comedy set at Johnson’s birthday party. Johnson and Ro Donnelly’s TeaTime Pictures joined Gloria Sanchez and Erik Feig’s Picturestart in mounting the project, which also offers humorous and occasionally tense glimpses into codependency of young people trying to figure out their lives.
Numerous real-life squabbles of Pomerantz and Elbaum’s were inserted into the script. A “whisper-screamed” fight — over Jane having to decide every restaurant they go to being the only reason Lucy eats at all — was taken from the confrontation between Pomerantz and Elbaum at a Hawaii airport. At one point in the film, Jane brings Lucy muffins for an intense hike. She mandates that Lucy can have half a muffin at the start and then the other half at the finish of their workout. Pomerantz says that recalling these moments only made the friends closer.
Besides, Elbaum says, “it makes sense. Weren’t you happy you had the other half of the muffin later? And it was really nice of me to bring muffins.”
“Yes,” Pomerantz admits through a smile. “I was happy.”