'Home Before Dark': TV Review

The young actress shines in a drama that gives its protagonist a lot of respect.
4/3/2020

'Florida Project' star Brooklynn Prince anchors this Apple TV+ mystery based on the life of young journalist Hilde Lysiak.

If Steven Spielberg had decided to follow up the blockbuster success of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial with an adaptation of Harriet the Spy starring Drew Barrymore, the result might have resembled Apple TV+'s new drama Home Before Dark.

I don't mean to imply that level of hypothetical quality, though Home Before Dark is a good 10-episode watch — at times very good — but rather to point to the honorable seriousness and respect with which the show approaches its underage protagonist, and the terrific performance by Brooklynn Prince, without which the series would be completely unfathomable. It's a story about a kid that doesn't treat its main character like a kid, but like a determined journalist who happens to have a very early curfew.

Developed by Dana Fox and Dara Resnik from the life of young journalist Hilde Lysiak, Home Before Dark stars Prince as 9-year-old ("and two-fifths," she would add) Hilde, who grew up following her reporter father (Jim Sturgess' Matt) to crime scenes around New York City, eventually launching a self-published broadsheet of her own. When Matt's obsession with one particular story costs him his job, the family returns to Matt's small coastal hometown in the Pacific Northwest. It's a decision that forces Hilde to shutter the Bed Stuy Beat and mother Bridget (Abby Miller) to give up her legal practice, and it amply frustrates Hilde's teenage sister, Izzy (Kylie Rogers), already upset about the amount of attention Hilde receives.

The move causes Matt to confront the childhood trauma of having his best friend abducted before his eyes, a crime pinned on a Native American teen by an upwardly mobile detective (Louis Herthum, adding Murder, She Wrote bona fides), now the town sheriff. It's the sort of town where everybody is connected, and Matt's return opens old wounds involving former chums Kim (Joelle Carter), now the school principal, and Frank (Michael Weston), whose possibly false testimony may have convicted an innocent man. The trouble grows only more intense when Hilde decides that solving this mystery will be her new journalistic crusade.

Home Before Dark treats Hilde as a bit of a 9-year-old Swiss Army knife, blurring the line between "detective" and "reporter" entirely. The show isn't always convincing when Hilde is playing detective, with occasional animated visualizations of a sporadic observational power that can only be described as "Hilde-vision." Still, the show's central mystery is pretty decent and features enough death and kidnapping that it never completely loses stakes, but no matter where Hilde goes poking her nose, some tension is diminished because you know Hilde's never facing real jeopardy. This is an inevitability that may affect the show's demographic reach.

It's totally convincing, though, when it treats her as a journalist, right down to solid advice on interview tactics and a great joke about the lack of word limits on the internet. OK, it's only mostly convincing, because I'm not sure I buy the speed with which Hilde's new paper becomes indispensable reading for an entire small town. But the series is wholly authentic when it shows how people use her age and gender to diminish her reporting, especially in the pilot, which teaches the crucial lesson "Never read the comments."

The first two episodes, directed by Crazy Rich Asians helmer Jon M. Chu, establish a key template in the way they depict Hilde. The character hates people who condescend to her, and the camera never looks down on her. As much as possible, the lens holds her level and captures the world as she sees it — Spielberg has always been a master at this — and even when she's being clever or feisty, the camera never lingers with a "Kids say the darnedest things" audacity.

Characters within the show may view her as cutesy or precocious, but the show just accepts that she's a dogged badass and treats her as such. The same can't always be said of Hilde's juvenile sidekicks Donny (Jibrail Nantambu) and Spoon (Deric McCabe), who absolutely feel like TV kids, though I'm guessing some viewers will appreciate their occasional mugging as comic relief — not that Hilde isn't capable of generating amusement on her own.

As anyone who saw The Florida Project knows, Prince is remarkable, and for every fleeting moment that you sense the "actor" in her coming to the surface, she follows it with a beat that's utterly spontaneous and affecting. She can go from nailing a one-liner (Ben & Kate creator Fox's background is largely comedy) to vulnerable and natural in a second. And she does something that precious few young actors are able to do — namely, make the grown-ups around her better and more engaged. When Sturgess plays opposite Prince, he's thoroughly engaged and engaging, but when he's on his own, he's a bit of a bore. (The secondary mission of resolving a troubled father figure's issues is one of the show's most Spielbergian touches.)

Prince has the same impact on Miller and Carter, though both their performances become interesting in themselves as the story progresses. It should be noted that, although she's likely to be upstaged by Prince just as Izzy is upstaged by Hilde, Rogers is very solid in her own right, selling the show's more conventional teen storylines. Heck, Mila Morgan steals a few scenes as the family's youngest daughter, so kudos to casting director Rachel Tenner.

Home Before Dark doesn't lack for little annoyances. A reliance on flashbacks forces the production to use some extremely bad aging makeup. The law enforcement figures range from underutilized (Aziza Scott's Trip) to inconsistent (Weston's Frank Junior) to cartoonish (Herthum's Frank Senior). The town's backdrop of tensions with its Native American populace is an afterthought at best. Plus, there are several key legal set pieces, including a bizarre disciplinary hearing, that border on ridiculous.

Still, I was consistently impressed by how many of the bigger things Home Before Dark does right. It all begins and ends with Prince, but while the main character would suggest a Disney-friendly approach, the show goes darker than that, achieving a delicate balance as it also stays lighter than the murk of your average prestige crime drama.

Cast: Brooklynn Prince, Jim Sturgess, Abby Miller, Louis Herthum, Michael Weston, Kylie Rogers, Aziza Scott, Joelle Carter
Creators: Dana Fox and Dara Resnik
Premieres: Friday (Apple TV+)