Apple TV+’s new series Home Before Dark is a unique hybrid of serialised mystery thriller, small-town domestic drama and Spielbergian adventure. It has broad family appeal without talking down to children, writes Dominic Corry.
The hour-long show focuses on Hilde Lisko (Brooklynn Prince from the acclaimed 2017 film The Florida Project), a nine-year-old obsessed with being a journalist and uncovering the truth wherever it may lead. That often gets her into trouble, but Hilde never lets trouble get in her way.
At a glance, and often in execution, it’s Veronica Mars plus Nancy Drew minus a decade. It sounds like a set-up straight out of high-concept Hollywood, but as the show repeatedly points out (it’s mentioned at the top and bottom of the first episode), this was inspired by the work of a real-life kid journalist named Hilde Lysiak, who publishes her own newspaper, just as Hilde Lisko does here.
Using Lysiak’s real circumstances as a launching pad, Home Before Dark constructs an otherwise highly fictional mythology around the character and her family, which includes broody dad Matthew (Jim Sturgess), supportive mum Bridget (Abby Miller), resentful older sister Izzy (Kylie Rogers) and wide-eyed younger sister Ginny (Mila Morgan).
The series begins with the Lisko family forced to leave Brooklyn after Matthew is let go from his job as a reporter for a big (fictional) New York newspaper. Matthew—from whom Hilde has inherited her obsession with being a crusading journalist—was apparently fired after getting too close to a story about a missing child.
Disillusioned and retreating from the world of journalism, Matthew packs up his family and moves them back to his father’s house in his small mid-western home town, a place he hasn’t visited in a very long time. They’re not back long before Hilde begins to discover why: as a child, Matthew was caught up in a high-profile kidnapping that nobody in the town has forgotten, and that creates problems for the Lisko family.
That kidnapping is also linked to a supposedly accidental death that occurs the day after the Liskos return. Hilde is convinced of foul play, and isn’t afraid of ruffling feathers to get the full story.
The first thing that sticks out about Home Before Dark is how unnervingly self-possessed young Hilde is. Anyone who’s seen The Florida Project knows that Prince’s acting abilities are kind of unnatural to begin with, but seeing such a tiny and youthful person spout impassioned epithets about getting to the truth no matter the cost is pretty weird. Which is the kind of the point of the show, but even in the context of child-protagonist stories, it’s somewhat jarring. It sometimes feels like really good CGI.
When Hilde and her pals get on their BMXes to go off investigatin’, the Amblin/Spielbergian qualities shine through greatly. And while this is the prevailing mood of the show, adult concerns are on display too. Matthew’s lingering childhood demons and how they lead to Bridget being socially shunned by the other mums in town add to a rounded portrait of a family facing challenges together.
Indeed, a sense of messy, interconnected domesticity is strong in Home Before Dark, and it is admirable in how it seeks to balance a darker worldview with the perspective of a child. It speaks to how Apple TV+ apparently wants to court a broad family audience without speaking down to children.
Hilde’s preoccupation with the honour and duty of journalism (she obsessively rewatches and quotes All The President’s Men) is a welcome theme in this day and age, and although Matthew is unrealistically permissive in letting this nine-year-old head knowingly into danger, she is a pretty awesome little role model.
The “small town with secrets” vibe makes for pleasant viewing, with more than a hint of Murder, She Wrote: Elementary School coming through, especially when Hilde is tapping away at her computer.
Given its central conceit, Home Before Dark could easily get too cute. But while Hilde does push the boundaries of precociousness, the show’s belief in her character, Prince’s remarkable performance and the minor hint of an edge all keep things appreciably on track.