Afterlife of the Party (2021)
She’s got one more chance to fix the life she left in pieces.
The first thing that stuck out about Netflix’s supernatural rom-com Afterlife of the Party is the film’s director, Stephen Herek, the guy who helmed some of my favorite childhood movies, including Critters (1986), The Three Musketeers (1993), and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). However, Afterlife of the Party doesn’t come anywhere near the heights of Herek’s previous efforts, despite being a fun, surprisingly emotional, romantic comedy, albeit a relatively generic one.
Afterlife of the Party follows the trajectory of other movies that focus on a person who has a supernatural encounter (be it with angels, ghosts, or a death experience themselves) that ultimately teaches them how to redeem or repair their lives — think the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait (1978). In this case, it’s former Nickelodeon star Victoria Justice, who plays Cassandra or ‘Cassie,’ a fun-loving social butterfly planning a big night out for her twenty-fifth birthday. Cassie is ready to paint the town red (it’s the first day of her weeklong ‘Cassie Palooza’ birthday celebrations), but her roommate and best friend Lisa (Midori Francis) would prefer to do something a little quieter and low key. Cassie and Lisa share a rented apartment in San Diego. Although the girls have been friends since the first grade, their social lives and interests have evolved over the years; Cassie is a frivolous, carefree, attention-seeking party-animal, whereas Lisa is more private and withdrawn, working at the museum as an archeologist.
Since it is Cassie’s special day, she calls the shots and the pair head out for a wild night of birthday shenanigans at a local bar. There, the girls meet up with a bunch of Cassie’s acquaintances. After several hours of drinking, lively dancing, and some crowd surfing (by Cassie), Lisa is ready to call it a night. Cassie, though, wants to continue to more clubs and nightspots. This ignites a war of words between the two girls just outside the bar. Lisa accuses Cassie of trying too hard to impress others (mainly flakey friends), highlighting Cassie’s obsession with being the heart and soul of a celebration. She also tries to convince Cassie that there’s more to life than just fooling around. Cassie, on the other hand, takes aim at Lisa for being jealous of her popularity and frisky lifestyle. The argument causes the girls to admit that their friendship has changed. Both agree to part ways, seeing as they share next to no common interests. Thus, Cassie leaves Lisa stranded and alone on the street, driving off to resume the night with her partygoer pals.
Early the next morning, Cassie arrives home blind drunk. She tries to apologize to Lisa for last night’s quarrel, but Lisa, due to being fast asleep, fails to acknowledge Cassie’s efforts. Cassie then hits the sack. She wakes up a few hours later disoriented, suffering from a terrible hangover. When Cassie goes to the bathroom to freshen up, she accidentally slips and slams her head on the toilet seat and instantly dies.
Cassie eventually wakes in a luxurious bedroom-type space, where she’s being presided over by Val (Robyn Scott), her temporary guardian angel, who is there to give Cassie emotional support. Val explains to a bewildered Cassie that she’s been dead for about a year and that her spirit is stuck in the ‘In-Between’ — a space between two realms (i.e., Heaven and Hell) — where those who have unfinished business get a second chance to make things right. And so, Cassie receives an afterlife bucket list, where she’ll need to reconcile her relationship with three key people: her father, mother, and BFF Lisa, as it approaches the one-year anniversary of Cassie’s untimely passing. If she successfully mends the broken relationships, Cassie will be sent to the ‘afterlife party in Heaven,’ but she only has five days to rectify things before time runs out. The only problem is that Cassie is effectively invisible to all on Earth and must find a way to connect with the living as a ‘spirit’ through observations, then figure out how to make amends for her past mistakes.
While Cassie’s journey is somewhat predictable, Victoria Justice, Fun Size (2012), helps sell the character’s growth and development. We see Cassie transform from an egotistical party girl to a woman ready to face her bitter, complicated past; she resolves her own feelings and ultimately helps herself and others move on. The 28-year-old Justice fits the role of Cassie incredibly well and is confident and charming. She gives the proceedings a fun vibe with her energy and optimism and makes the glitzy, bubblehead character somebody audiences can root for. Oh, Justice gets a bangin’ wardrobe, too; the standout is a stunning beaded ‘disco ball’ dress, which almost didn’t make the cut due to its reflectivity — now, there’s an outfit that’ll really turn heads!
Additionally, Justice’s relationship with co-star Midori Francis, Good Boys (2019), is dynamic and credible, the latter essentially playing the relatable every-woman. Francis certainly elevates the material and is great in her role. The friendship Cassie and Lisa share is handled nicely and feels authentic, almost as if the girls have a real history. It’s nice to see a movie with women uplifting other women and plutonic female relationships explored in such an honest and heartwarming way. The contrast between Cassie and Lisa helps to keep the story grounded and provides a lot of the film’s comedic moments. Cassie essentially tries to play Cupid by setting Lisa up with her nerdy bumbling British neighbor Max (Timothy Renouf), with whom Lisa has had a year-long crush on.
The script by Carrie Freedle, My Secret Valentine (2018), is formulaic and saccharine; the movie, however, does have an unexpected finale and some genuine depth. Freedle’s screenplay aims to tug on the heartstrings and succeeds. This is particularly evident as Cassie tries to repair her fractured relationships, with the film essentially addressing the grieving process. Cassie confronts her somewhat absent father, Howard or ‘Howie’ (Adam Garcia), whose life quickly went off the rails after Cassie’s death. She also learns more about her estranged mother, Sofia (Gloria Garcia), which helps ease the pain of her childhood; Sofia abandoned Howie and left Cassie at a very young age. There are some blatant metaphors in the film, too, which slightly drag the whole thing down; for example, a puzzle and its missing piece work as a symbol for Cassie and Lisa’s fractured bond — talk about bloody obvious!
But the biggest setback with Afterlife of the Party is the way in which filmmakers handle the idea of Cassie being unable to communicate with the living — why bother setting up a rule if you’re only going to break it? Cassie, despite being invisible, basically interacts with almost everything (and everyone) around her, which renders the whole ghost angle meaningless. At one point, even Lisa can see Cassie — this is brushed off as a freak accident!
While Justice and Francis more-or-less carry the picture, the support players are notable enough. Adam Garcia is memorable as Cassie’s father Howie, a yoga and meditation instructor now living a toxic life as a loner — and, yep, that’s the guy from Coyote Ugly (2000), who looks as though he’s been sipping from the fountain of youth! Relative newcomer Robyn Scott is delightfully compelling as Cassie’s temp guardian angel Val, who’s given enough screen time — and her own minor subplot — to shine. Finally, American pop/ R&B artist Spencer Sutherland shows up in a handful of scenes as dreamy music sensation Kooper ‘Koop’ Keene, whom Cassie and Lisa adore; Sutherland provides four original songs for the film’s soundtrack, one of which he co-wrote with star Justice.
Director Herek, cinematographer Michael Swan, White Lion (2010), and production designer Franz Lewis, Five Fingers for Marseilles (2017), deliver aesthetically pleasing visuals that echo the tonal progressions of the narrative. The film starts bright and sparkly, chiefly during Cassie’s birthday exploits and when she’s in limbo. The palette, however, becomes more muted and cooler as the story advances. Lighting cues shift from vibrant pastel to more natural de-saturated tones, which subtly mirror the emotional state of Cassie during her ‘come back tour.’
As a modern-day spin on It’s a Wonderful Life, Afterlife of the Party is a pretty good effort. While Justice may have legs for days, she’s no James Stewart; but come on, this could have been a lot worse. Sure, it’s overly sentimental in parts, but the film is nicely executed and is affable and pleasant enough. Afterlife of the Party is a difficult movie to outright dislike. Grab your gal pals, get some popcorn, and maybe bring tissues.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Stu Cachia (S-Littner)