Apple TV's Home Before Dark is an Excellent Family Mystery

The first episode of “Home Before Dark” has nine-year-old investigative journalist Hilde Lisko (Brooklynn Prince getting the gig she deserves after "The Florida Project") going head-to-head with a modern menace: a hateful comment section. Using her own blog, she’s just reported about a mysterious death in her town of Erie Harbor, a place where snide kids all seem to grow up to be secretive adults, and she now faces cries of fake news from her peers and her parents' peers alike. But Hilde decides to own her work and the ire that comes with it, for the sake of her emotional fortitude, and more importantly, journalism. “Because if the truth doesn’t matter, nothing ever will,” Hilde proclaims while standing on a lunch table to the shock of her peers. 

It’s a moment that’s far more triumphant than its hand-holding might indicate, and it’s certainly not the only winning attribute of this incredibly entertaining Apple TV+ series from creators Dana Fox and Dara Resnik, which premieres on Friday with a full season of ten episodes. The story she has written about is far bigger than Hilde—she’s pried at an unsolved case from decades ago involving the disappearance of a boy named Richie, and has ignited a modern mystery involving the death of a woman named Penny (Sharon Taylor), the sister of the man who was accused of Richie's disappearance and sent to prison. As the show deftly expands its drama once the Lisko family packs up their Brooklyn apartment during the pilot's opening moments, Hilde's family’s sense of unity is in jeopardy, and so is that of this small town. Boasting excellent writing across its first five episodes, the series creates a sense of stakes that are greater, and even more enticing, than its two big whodunits. 

Prince is a fascinating center for this expansive tale, and she plays Hilde with control and confidence, selling the idea of a nine-year-old investigative journalist who has a photographic memory and a true gift for finding a story. It’s her tenacity that digs up this case that’s been buried by small-town corruption, and it’s her invigorating faith in the truth that keeps it going despite the rising number of people who wish she would stop. Prince’s performance ensures that Hilde's fast-talking, ask-it-all character traits are never seen as quaint, even with two young sidekicks who provide comic relief, keeping the rich tone (established by Jon M. Chu in the first two episodes) in check for kids and adults. The show finds a perfect visual match for Hilde's creativity using stop-motion animation when depicting her latest findings, a clever peek inside her detailed notebook that also recalls bonding with her grandfather Sylvester (Reed Birney) over messages snuck inside origami. 

Jim Sturgess nearly holds his own against Prince as Matty, Hilde’s experienced and disillusioned journalist father. Being 2020, Matty is going through a job crisis, and it has forced them to move to this town he once called home. But as a good dad who has long inspired his daughter, his journalism advice doubles as parenting advice. It all adds to the story’s overall theme of the impression that parents can leave on their kids, a significant idea given that the past crime involves young men who were urged to lie about Richie's disappearance long ago (another of the show's early hooks), and now live with their parents’ selfish influence. Matty's time back home is an abrasive high school reunion—"Home Before Dark" leans a little too hard into how one interaction with a long-forgotten schoolmate can make us feel like a vulnerable kid again, but Sturgess is a sturdy emotional force in a story that aggressively flashes back to the past. 

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Hilde also receives help from her mother (Abby Miller), one of many women in Erie Harbor (along with a police officer played by Aziza Scott) who nevertheless persist through the small town's ingrained sexism. Like Matty, Miller's character has her own skills that comes in handy, while she too juggles work and her parental role. And like Hilde, she has an outsider’s view to this Erie Harbor's drama, but is more judgmental, as when she first meets Matty’s childhood girlfriend Kim, who is now Hilde’s school principal. 

In an attempt to further liven things up, “Home Before Dark” is a series that pops with its pop culture, but it’s better with the songs than the films. For a series in which a VCR mystifies its fourth grade sleuth, it has no problem digging into some songs that Hilde would consider classic rock—“The Truth Doesn’t Make A Noise” by The White Stripes is one of the first in-your-face picks, and is followed up by overly dramatic covers of songs like Pat Benatar's "Hit Me with Your Best Shot" and Radiohead's "Creep." But less smooth is how the series makes characters talk in ‘80s movie references, which makes sense given the original crime’s timeframe, but here plays particularly on-the-nose, as if "Home Before Dark" were trying to make itself hip by acknowledging our current nostalgia. 

From its first five episodes, the series demonstrates a clearly thought-out approach to its different arcs. And it does this all while having different shades of seriousness and also playfulness, like when Hilde's big lunchtime speech is topped off with a food fight, or when we see her older sister Izzy (Kylie Rogers) navigate a new crush, or hear the youngest sister Ginny (Mila Morgan) say some darndest thing. "Home Before Dark" strikes an impressive balance, because its storytellers are willing to take all of its characters seriously, while carefully unfolding a good mystery that affects everyone. "Home Before Dark" has all the hallmarks of excellent family entertainment. 

Five episodes of season one screened for review.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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