I will openly admit that when it comes to holiday movies, my standards are low. I would (and do) blame Hallmark, but Netflix’s recent dive into similarly predictable and at times, nearly problematic movies, have really sold the idea that “holiday movie” is synonymous with critical disaster. With the memory of Netflix’s other forays into book adaptations fresh on my mind, I binged the new holiday limited series, “Dash & Lily,” with cautious open mindedness. To my great surprise, I enjoyed it immensely. Then again, it doesn’t get much better than a scavenger hunt through the hidden gems of a holiday-bedazzled New York City.
Alone in New York City for the holiday season without his parents’ knowledge, Dash (Austin Abrams) is fond of scouring old bookstores, dramatically drinking liquor, and trying to avoid his prep school classmates. No, he’s not Holden Caulfield (though it might not be a coincidence that he first finds Lily’s notebook between copies of Salinger’s Zooey and Franny). He does, however, have a grudge against Christmas. In the days leading up to Christmas, he happens upon a notebook of clues stashed at the Strand bookstore. What starts out as an attempt to distract himself from his least favorite time of the year quickly becomes an all-consuming adventure through New York City as he’s never seen it before, accompanied only by the instructions of the mysterious Lily. His growing determination to connect with Lily in real life is derailed by the return of his ex girlfriend.
Lily (Midori Francis) isn’t introduced until the second episode, titled, appropriately, Lily (the first episode is called Dash). Despite her bubbly personality and loving family, Lily is desperate for a connection with someone her own age. At the encouragement of her older brother, Langston, and his new boyfriend, she leaves a notebook full of literary clues in the Strand, expecting nothing to come of it. Except someone responds. Suddenly Lily isn’t just spending her days with the neighborhood caroling troop; she’s crafting dares for an anonymous boy she’s never met. And by night, Lily’s social circles explode as she follows through on Dash’s dares. Just as she begins to realize her feelings for Dash, though, she reconnects with a childhood acquaintance that complicates her relationship with Dash and her newly built confidence.
As Dash and Lily grow closer through their anonymous correspondences, the people who surround each of them are revealed to be compelling characters in their own right. This is especially true for Dash’s best (and only) friend, Boomer. An enthusiastic pizza shop employee, Boomer becomes the point person for both Lily and Dash early in the show. Boomer is a remarkably good friend, to the point that you sometimes wonder if Dash is really the best he can do. Nonetheless, the consistent stability of Boomer, as well as Lily’s brother Langston, and her eccentric great-aunt, Mrs. Basil E., make it possible for viewers to see just how much Lily and Dash are impacting each other.
The culture of Lily’s family throughout the show creates a stark contrast to the emptiness of Dash’s life. Lily’s Japanese heritage plays into this a little, but her family also has a host of other traditions that she thrives on. When her parents leave on a suspiciously abrupt “second honeymoon” to Java for the holidays, the disruption of the family’s usual traditions initially devastates Lily. Even absent, though, Lily’s parents are a far warmer presence than Dash’s distant and argumentative father.
I haven’t read David Levithan and Rachel Cohn’s Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares, which the show is based on, so it might have been a fault of the adaptation rather than the story, but one of my few issues with “Dash & Lily” was the ages of the characters. Both Lily and Dash are supposed to be about 17 years old. Francis and Abrams are 26 and 24 years old, respectively, but they are able to convincingly portray teenagers. Less understandable is the nearly 30-year-old Glenn McCuen as Lily’s childhood bully (who would, presumably, also be 17). McCuen was not a passable 17-year-old, and it was almost laughable to see him in scenes surrounded by much younger looking “peers.” I felt that the problem of having older actors portraying the characters, as well as the extremity of some of the adventures the characters go on could have been resolved by aging the characters up a few years. Even something as simple as the replacement of Dash’s prep school and Lily’s public high school with an elite university and a local NYC college would have made these characters feel more grounded in reality.
It will be interesting to see what Netflix pursues in regards to the show. The specific material of the show- the holiday season- might make future seasons predictable and repetitive, but “Dash & Lily” also has the potential to become a holiday staple for Netflix, in the vein of the “Christmas Prince” franchise, with a new season releasing each year. The show managed to wrap up all of the strings by the end of the final episode. Still, the story was left open-ended enough to adapt the 2016 sequel to “Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares,” titled “The Twelve Days of Dash and Lily,” which takes place a year after the events of the first book.
It may have its flaws, but “Dash & Lily” is everything most holiday movies aren’t: clever, inclusive, and original. You may have missed it in the barrage of holiday themed Netflix specials, but with its eight under-thirty-minute episodes, “Dash & Lily” is a great choice for a quick hit of holiday cheer. Grab some hot chocolate and get ready to fall in love.