When you hear a romantic comedy is called Afterlife of the Party (clever title), and that it involves a party girl who dies with unfinished business, it establishes certain expectations for the sort of movie you’re going to see. It’s easy to imagine a series of haunted soirees, with martini glasses floating through the air of their own accord, and an unseen force tipping over people’s beers for sport. Maybe not that exact thing, but something of that broad nature.
Well, while some Netflix bait-and-switches are pernicious, others are benevolent. Stephen Herek’s film, from a script by Carrie Freedle, is disarmingly sweet and good-hearted. Its evident budgetary limitations serve its natural temperament, as instead of getting a movie weighted down by a high concept and the resulting rules, we get a paean to friendship and to making things right before we shuffle off this mortal coil. And if its budgetary limitations are evident, that’s only because of the comparatively small size of the comparatively unknown cast, and the modest, contained nature of most scenes. (It also helps with COVID, as the COVID Monitor is one of the job titles appearing the credits.) Purely on a filmmaking level, this is as polished and competent as a person could want.
Victoria Justice stars as Cassie, a social butterfly who is addicted to the socials, and has been best friends with the far more studious Lisa (Midori Francis) since early primary school. Their differing lifestyles come to a head on a particular Saturday night out, when Cassie is distracted by more glamourous and frivolous friends. It turns out Cassie doesn’t understand what Lisa does for work (she’s a palaeontologist) and the reverse is also true (Cassie is an event planner), and that their careers operate as a metaphor for their values and the way they’ve grown apart. Little do they know that this will be their last conversation – in life, anyway.
Hungover the next morning, Cassie takes a header into her toilet bowl and awakens in a sort of afterlife waystation that’s styled after the living room of her dreams. The blow to the head was fatal, Cassie is informed by Val (Robyn Scott), a cheerfully droll guardian angel with a British accent. However, all is not lost, as Cassie still has the opportunity to tie up emotional loose ends before she takes the lift either up or – er – down. That means descending back to Earth as a spirit no one can see, but who can make small changes in the lives of not only Lisa, but of her yoga instructor father (Adam Garcia) and of the mother who walked out on them when Cassie was just a child (Gloria Garcia, no relation).
The modest scope of Afterlife of the Party feels like a warm embrace. That starts with the adorable charisma of the two stars, Justice and Francis. They may be very different samples of a 21st century woman, but both are a beguiling mix of strengths and insecurities, and both light up the screen with performances that highlight the veteran professionalism of a director like Herek (who directed Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure more than 30 years ago).
To suggest that the film’s aims are modest is not to overlook its nods to a certain sort of fabulousness, either. Val tells Cassie that she is allowed one wardrobe change per day, and Cassie makes the most of them in variations on different party outfits, including one that is bejewelled with sequins from top to bottom. That these do nothing to undercut Cassie’s growing emotional maturity gets at the clever balancing act this film pulls off.
Robyn Scott is the film’s other winning presence as Val, the guardian angel attempting to lead Cassie through the five days she has to cross the three names off her list. She’s got some of the best nuggets of screenwriter Carrie Freedle’s dialogue, and delivers them with a perfect combination of supportiveness, self-effacing charm and light absurdity and teasing. Anyone would want a guide through the afterlife with this precise combination of character traits.
But perhaps this film’s greatest sneak attack is how emotionally it lands its third act. For however much fun Afterlife of the Party wants to have along the way, this is still the story of a woman who died young, who touched many lives but was not an uncomplicated presence in those lives. The movie understands that most of us die at a time that we wouldn’t have chosen if it had been up to us, not just a conked head on a toilet bowl that Cassie is afraid has gone viral when she sees a video replay of it. Since most of us don’t get a chance to make amends, better make them now while we’re still the life of this terrestrial party.