'Home Before Dark' Review: Apple TV+'s true-crime drama feels muddled with its use of mundane genre tropes
Inspired by the real-life Hilde Lysiak, the series shows how a nine-year-old journalist prodigy solved a 30-year-old murder mystery
Spoilers for 'Home Before Dark'
Hilde Lisko's story, inspired by the real-life Hilde Lysiak, is a dramatization of the role the nine-year-old journalist prodigy played in solving an old murder mystery in her town. However, there is no drama involved in admitting that having the show's Hilde for a child can be quite an incessant headache.
There's precocious, and then there's 'Home Before Dark's Hilde (Brooklynn Prince), who is a little too obsessed with 'All The President’s Men' and too nonchalant about stepping out of the main door in the middle of the night. She also offers death glares to the driver of a sketchy looking black car who decides to park in their driveway. But even with all of Hilde's bizarre quirks and reckless, albeit childlike wonder, what one can't overlook is the confusion the murder-mystery/ children's adventure seems to be swirling in.
In that, Dara Resnik and Dana Fox's creation with ample contribution from Jon M Chu fails to find a firm ground when it comes to its designated audience.
The story kicks off with the ominous move from a big city to a small town — the signature move where we know and are preparing for something bad to happen. Hilde's father Matt Lisko (Jim Sturgess), a jaded reporter, moves back to his hometown of Erie Harbor after losing his job. Following in tow are his wife, Bridget (Abby Miller), and three children — Izzy, Hilde and Ginny.
Izzy is your typical symbol for teen/pre-teen angst, storming off at everybody in sight and perpetually embarrassed by her precocious sister. That is kind of relatable because when not being cardboard cutout poster parents for feminism, Hilde's parents allowing her reckless curiosity to soar can get truly unrealistic at times. What's also unrealistic is the liberty with which law personnel share their classified case files with a 9-year-old after she decides the sudden death of her father's old classmate is murder.
Through Hilde, the 10-part series channels its essence of thrill and adventure — the kind we saw in 'The Goonies' back in the day, and more recently on 'Stranger Things'. Just kids riding around bikes in the dead of the night, breaking into crime scenes and snooping around because adults are too busy clearing the mess in their own lives — all this is brought about by Hilde's passionate quest for the story, despite her father's clear warnings.
She is joined by her two loyal sidekicks — a count trapped in a child's body and another cheeky troublemaker with a thing for cat-ear hairbands. But they aren't Hilde's only consorts. With them are also a few kind strangers who look like they are genuinely kicking patriarchy in the proverbial balls. However, they could also be really tired of a nagging child and give her what she seeks to get her off their backs.
It is these confusing layers to the show that bothers one about who the story is catering to for the most part, rather than being invested in the core whodunnit essence of it all.
On one hand, we have Hilde's magical ambition in following her father's footsteps and being a credible reporter. Her photographic memory is displayed in animated sequences, just like flashbacks, as Hilde chances upon newer clues and evidence. The very next moment, the show shifts from all of those curious cat adventures and the pinks and purples of imaginative wonder turn to darker hues of grit and gloom when Matt gets flashbacks of his past. Hilde and Matt's worlds in Erie Walls collide when she learns the real reason why her father kept this part of his life suppressed from everyone.
Matching Prince's conviction is Sturgess's seasoned expertise in portraying Matt's wounds and scars from witnessing his childhood best friend getting kidnapped 30 years back. Holding it all together is Miller's portrayal of Bridget — frustrated with her husband's secrets but forced to keep her young ones safe. There are two vastly different universes panning out on the show side by side, and more often than not, the transcendence of Hilde's adventure into Matt's despair is neither smooth nor gradual. It comes as a force each time, leaving one unsettled right when you'd think you have a pretty good grasp of the tone.
In all of these confusing layers, however, it is Prince's rendition of Hilde — treading on the thin lines separating precocious from annoying — that sets a promising hope for the recently announced second season.
Sailing in two boats can never be a smart decision and Apple TV+ (seemingly unknowingly) does the same with the two completely different, albeit mutually exclusive, tones in this series. But if you are quarantined with your children, this might be a good way to teach them unacceptable recklessness and boundaries when it comes to strangers, apart from the titular reminders to get home before its dark outside — once we all are finally allowed outside again that is. And that, right there, is perhaps 'Home Before Dark's target audience.
'Home Before Dark' was initially slated to premiere with its first three episodes on Friday, April 3, only on Apple TV+, with weekly episodes to follow. The premiere is, however, subject to changes with the possibility of all episodes dropping together on April 3.