Review: ‘Afterlife of the Party’ is high-concept comfort food on Netflix

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Afterlife of the Party'

After the success of “Lady Bird,” “Eighth Grade” and “CODA,” the bar for coming-of-age stories is set high. But if you want some mindless comfort food with a high-concept fantasy premise where you can predict almost everything, “Afterlife of the Party” drops on Netflix this Friday.

It follows Cassie, an extroverted party planner who celebrates her 25th birthday by hitting the club and drinking her face off. Her introverted best friend and roommate, Lisa, is a paleontologist who would rather stay home with a puzzle. This personality clash creates a rift that happens to coincide with Cassie’s untimely demise after a wild night of partying.

She awakens in purgatory, where a guardian angel explains she’s dead with unfinished business. She gives her a list of three names: her best friend, her yoga instructor father and her abandoning mother. If she can heal them, she goes to heaven. If not, it’s down below for the rest of eternity. There’s one problem: They can’t see her.

Or can they?

Victoria Justice leads again

Victoria Justice, famous for her roles on shows such as Nickelodeon’s “Zoey 101,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Suite Life with Zack & Cody” and “Victorious,” carries the film as the social butterfly.

To see her as a rich 20-something, dancing around a swanky downtown suite with a giant walk-in closet, isn’t very realistic. Surely she would be living in a cramped apartment working multiple jobs to pay off student loans. Not only does it strain plausibility, it makes her rather unlikable at first. Even if we force the logic, she’s an entitled trust-fund baby.

That may be the point, as her character grows from a spoiled brat to someone who begins helping others. Her rock is her best friend, charmingly played by Midori Francis, who finds adorable romance with the neighbor (Timothy Renouf). Their wooing is the film’s strongest element, far more developed than her grieving dad (Adam Garcia) and her estranged mom (Gloria Garcia).

All the while, Robyn Scott’s guardian angel Val plays like a mix of the Fairy Godmother in “Cinderella,” Clarence the Angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the Ghost of Christmas Present in “A Christmas Carol.” She gets all the fun supernatural zingers, watching Cassie’s death footage in a digital hologram like “Minority Report” meets “Nine Days.”

Screenwriter Carrie Freedle said that Cassie is allowed one costume change per day in the afterlife. Isn’t fighting for your eternal soul more important than playing dress up? It would make much more sense to remain in the clothes you died in, like Patrick Swayze rocking the same red shirt for the entire duration of “Ghost” (1990).

(Side note: “Ghost” is underrated these days. Everyone remembers “Unchained Melody,” but Whoopi Goldberg and the script both won Oscars. It’s one of my favorites in the genre.)

Discerning viewers can overlook the “rules of magic” for artistic license, but only with flawless writing.

Weak storytelling from the start

Act One suffers from obvious exposition from the first line: “It’s an impromptu dance party with my best friend since first grade!” At the end of the scene, she repeats, “Love you, my bestie since we were six!”

No one would say this. Friendship is implied.

During the very next scene in the hallway, they pass a new neighbor carrying moving boxes. Lisa says, “Moving in? Of course you’re moving in; I don’t know why I just said that.”

That’s what we think about the dialogue throughout the movie. It’s better to show, not tell.

Other elements are cute but a bit on-the-nose, like a Mona Lisa puzzle missing its smile. Likewise, her father-daughter lullaby is The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” which may be Paul McCartney’s favorite song ever, but is cliché to use in a film after it appeared so famously in “Love Actually.”

The soundtrack features her fictional celebrity crush, Koop (Spencer Sutherland), with original pop songs such as “Drive.” The tunes are catchy enough to joke with your spouse that Koop is your new favorite artist! Alas, Koop is a superficial way to bookend the film as the ultimate payoff for the protagonist’s existential journey.

The film was initially written to be shot in the United States but had to be filmed in Cape Town, South Africa due to COVID-19. Rather than embracing Cape Town landmarks, the filmmakers kept things vague, including club scenes meant to feel like New York City and referring to her introverted friend’s job at the Natural History Museum.

It becomes disorienting when we see her father living by a tropical ocean. You’ll wonder: Are they in different countries? Then you’ll realize that he supposedly lives nearby — you know, on the magical turquoise waters of the Hudson River.

I guess we’ll just go with it, which is the modus operandi for “Afterlife of the Party.”

2.5 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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