“Home Before Dark,” the latest series from Apple TV Plus, belongs to a small and specific group: shows that are worth watching because of a child actor.
We’re not talking about superior shows like “Better Things” or “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay,” whose talented young performers are just one inducement among many. Some series stir to life primarily because of the particular scene-stealing alchemy child actors can exercise, and those shows hook you if the adolescent star is sufficiently appealing: the plucky Saniyya Sidney of Fox’s “The Passage,” the mournfully determined Madeleine McGraw of Cinemax’s “Outcast,” the bright young comic ensembles of ABC’s “Single Parents” and CBS’s “The Unicorn.”
“Home Before Dark,” which premieres with three of its 10 episodes on Friday (it has already been renewed for a second season), features an actress who is both inescapably charming and already better known than the average 9-year-old who’s making her television debut. Brooklynn Prince became an instant star in the film “The Florida Project” in 2017; my colleague A.O. Scott called her “uncannily poised” at the time, and nothing’s changed in the intervening three years.
The casting is apt because Prince is playing a character based on an uncannily precocious real-life child: Hilde Lysiak, who drew national attention as a 9-year-old when she broke the news of a local murder in her self-published newspaper.
For the purposes of a family-friendly, young-adult drama, Prince’s Hilde Lisko in “Home Before Dark” starts out as a budding journalist — emulating her ex-reporter father, another detail taken from life — but quickly expands her repertoire, developing into a pipsqueak Sherlock Holmes with a photographic memory.
A fourth-grader who can quote Jason Robards’s speeches from “All the President’s Men,” Hilde takes her crusading instincts up several notches when the local sheriff is too quick to label the death of a friendly neighbor an accident. Her investigation, aided by a comic-relief duo of classmates (Deric McCabe and Jibrail Nantambu), gets her in increasingly large amounts of trouble each time she hits the publish button on her blog.
The mystery story and the family drama of “Home Before Dark,” both wildly inflated from the facts of Hilde Lysiak’s life, push the limits of implausibility and sentimentality even by the standards of a soapy, sins-of-the-parents family melodrama. (Hilde Lisko’s fraught relationships with her family members recall the dynamics in better shows like “The Fosters” and “Medium.”)
That the show speeds by not just painlessly but engagingly owes in part to a darkly handsome production (including episodes directed by Jon M. Chu of “Crazy Rich Asians” and Jim McKay of “Our Song”) and to some appealing adult performances, particularly by Abby Miller and Joelle Carter (reunited after “Justified”) as Hilde’s mother and grade-school principal.
But the main attraction, from start to finish, is the insouciance and conviction that Prince brings to her portrayal of a child who suffers for being an outsider but refuses to give into pressure from family, schoolmates, teachers and police to just go along. (And while the notion of a 9-year-old’s exposing corruption and winning justice for the wrongfully convicted may be fantastical, it’s also refreshing to see a story in which difference is defined in terms that don’t have to do with race or gender.) Whether Hilde is crying because of mean comments on her blog, climbing on a cafeteria table to give a “Norma Rae” speech or poring over police reports, Prince is carrying the show.