Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
AFTERLIFE OF THE PARTY
Rated PG, 1 hour and 49 minutes
Directed by: Stephen Herek
The act of attaining closure involves granting oneself the acceptance necessary to heal and move on. Yet that enlightened form of thinking rarely infiltrates our beloved romcoms. There are always hilarious shenanigans involved before the heroine figures it out.
Director Stephen Herek’s AFTERLIFE OF THE PARTY strikes a good balance of both heightened hijinks and healthy profundity. It’s centered on a party girl who, in death, is forced to gain closure, evolving from selfish to selfless, not only in order to enrich the lives of those she left behind, but also guarantee her standing in the afterlife. And while films of this ilk are guaranteed to follow a somewhat predictable path, the magic of this film is how it packs in a disarming amount of palpable poignancy that sneaks up on its audience when they least expect it.
Party planner Cassie (Victoria Justice) loves to be the center of attention. It rules her entire life, from obsessing over her Instagram, to creating the perfect look for a night out on the town with her flakey club-hopping pals. She even knows the names of all the bouncers. Naturally, this annoys her long-suffering archeologist bestie Lisa (Midori Francis), an introvert who would rather they share a meaningful low-key hang out at home than spend any time with superficial strangers. And it all comes to a head the night of Cassie’s 25th birthday when the pair get into an intense argument and agree to part ways – maybe more than they think.
Tipsy from the night’s exploits, Cassie falls in their bathroom, violently smacking her head on the toilet and dying instantly. She’s sent to the In-Between – an iteration of limbo dressed up like an ethereal nook at Anthropologie, or a celebrity swag area at Coachella – where she meets guardian angel Val (Robyn Scott). Cassie is told she passed away with a lot of unfinished business, baggage that’s in dire need of repair before she can progress to the next stage. Whether that’s Heaven (“up there”) or Hell (“down there”) will depend on whether she can make good with certain people in 5 days time. Those include her embarrassing yogi father Howie (Adam Garcia) and her estranged mother Sofia (Gloria Garcia), who abandoned Cassie at a young age and now has a new young daughter. Also on the apology tour is Lisa, whose grief caused her to further shut out life, letting opportunities for love and career advancement pass her by. Cassie’s quest is an uphill battle and as the clock advances, she worries whether her redemption plan will work.
Herek, cinematographer Michael Swan, and production designer Franz Lewis give the picture a sharp, aesthetically appealing arc that echoes the narrative’s tonal progressions. The girls’ apartment, which starts out bright and airy, becomes sullen and cooler-hued once Cassie’s in limbo. Lighting cues, shifting from a perky pastel palette to de-saturated tones, also follow similar movements for nuanced emotional emphasis. Through Danielle Knox’s costume design and Christa Schoeman’s make-up and hair design, we can also chart Cassie’s evolution from an ostentatious narcissist, who values garish flash and sparkly sequins, to a grounded girl next door, who values a good floral print and soft spring colors.
Screenwriter Carrie Freedle pours a ton of heart and soul into the life-long friends’ moments while reforming their bond. On the surface, it appears this is a light-hearted romp. There’s a sufficient amount of fun zaniness that ensues as Cassie attempts to fix up Lisa with cute, equally-shy next door neighbor Max (Timothy Renouf). Yet the filmmakers’ treatment of the grieving process resonates the loudest. Justice and Midori nail their comedic timing as well as the heartrending pathos. The scene where Cassie laments she’ll never get to see Lisa experience important milestones hits like a gut-punch. Inevitable emotional payoffs feel earned and wholly satisfying.
There are some expected hiccups, though not enough to outweigh the film’s endearing charm and surprising emotional depth. It’s more than a little convenient, despite her excuse, that Lisa would hold onto Cassie’s personally sentimental stuff in the trinket box – the most egregious talisman being postcards from Cassie’s deadbeat mother. It’s integral to moving the storyline forward, but it’s slightly questionable and feels like anvil-heavy foreshadowing. Treating the puzzle and its missing piece as a metaphor for Cassie and Lisa’s fractured friendship is cute, but obvious in technique.
Pacing is a bit of an issue at the beginning, suffering from a clunky start. However, when it levels out in the second act, after the relationships and rules of Cassie’s world are well-established, the picture hits its confident stride. It also tries too hard to give Val added dimension, setting up her goal to become an “anytime” guardian angel, especially when her inevitable arc is completed off-camera and we’re only told about it. It’s great the filmmakers wanted to further their message touting the benefits of women uplifting other women, but the primary storyline between Cassie and Lisa already demonstrates this. The blessing here is that the redundancy doesn’t bog down narrative momentum too terribly and gives added screen-time to a capable, delightfully charismatic supporting player.
AFTERLIFE OF THE PARTY is now streaming on Netflix.