Though Lifetime and Hallmark Channel have had the holiday movie market cornered for years, Netflix recently started making its own inroads into that candy-cane-strewn arena. Unhindered by the contraints of cable network programming, the streamer is free to target a wide range of age groups, including adolescents. This hasn’t always meant success (last winter’s teen romp Let It Snow was a bit too cliché to be much fun), but this year’s young-adult outing, the charming series Dash & Lily, is much more successful.
Based on the YA novel Dash & Lily’s Book Of Dares by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn (authors of Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist), the series follows the two titular teens as they connect through a red notebook that Lily first leaves in the Salinger section of the Strand bookstore, where all unconventional youths go to commiserate. The pair communicate via this mobile mutual diary, learning more about each other but also challenging one another with an increasingly elaborate series of dares. It’s refreshing to see teens forgo their screens, though Dash and Lily still find it easier to open up on the anonymous pages of a red notebook than it would be in real life.
The two are both loners in their own way, after all. The cynical, holiday-hating Dash (Austin Abrams) is isolated by his own design; he drops lines like “people ruin everything” and inhabits that upper-crust teen echelon of books and shows like Gossip Girl. Lily (Midori Francis) is more down to earth, surrounded by her charming family with whom she lives in her grandfather’s apartment. She suffers from being called the “weird girl.” Being true to herself means that she doesn’t fit in—her hilarious older brother, Langston (Troy Iwata), says that her only fun involves making her own clothes and playing board games with her grandpa. (Langston and Lily actually form a kind of Franny And Zooey pairing on their own.)
Dash & Lily’s two leads are more than engaging enough to sell this unconventionally detached relationship. Austin Abrams perfectly embodies the brooding, peacoat-wearing, Holden Caulfield aficionado Dash. Midori Francis is almost heartbreaking in portraying Lily’s steely, sunny optimism when faced with one disappointment after the next. When she cheerfully makes herself a light-up Christmas tree dress for a party, she knows she’ll look ridiculous, but it still makes her happy. They’re surrounded by a talented, diverse cast including Dante Brown as Dash’s best friend, Boomer; Jaimes Saito and Jodi Long as Lily’s grandfather and great-aunt; and Troy Iwata and Diego Guevara as adorable couple Langford and Benny.
The shared notebook inspires Dash and Lily to not only open up, but also send each other on scavenger trips throughout the city, interpreting New York—a place they both obviously love—for each other. They are sent on missions to enter Grand Central before the first train arrives, or find the patron saint of weird girls (the Alice In Wonderland statue) in Central Park. That’s not the only time Alice shows up, along with myriad other fictional creations from the likes of Cinderella, The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Nutcracker, and The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. Dash sends Lily out on adventures (like to an after-hours Hanukkah punk show) to bring her out of her shell, while Lily sends Dash to places in an attempt to get him to lighten up and enjoy the beauty of Christmas in New York (like an over-the-top holiday-decorated neighborhood street). As the pair doesn’t physically meet while they’re communicating through the notebook, these episodes function on a slow build of overlapping timelines: We see Dash get thrown out of Macy’s Santa section in episode one, but don’t see why until episode two. But a glittering Manhattan at holiday time makes for a perfect backdrop for this often fairy-tale-tinged narrative.
It’s obvious where all of this is leading, of course, and with that much buildup, there’s some inevitable letdown when Dash and Lily actually meet, as that perfect person in your head (or in your notebook) is bound to falter in real life. Along with an unnecessary celebrity holiday concert, there’s a typical rom-com swell toward unbridled romance at the end. But the romance is one of the weakest parts of the story. Dash and Lily begin as supportive (pen-pal) friends, so the real lesson here is not as much about romance as it is about bravery and emotionality, about trying to figure yourself out in adolescence—making Dash & Lily a far more valuable YA outing than one focused on the unrealistic possibilities of finding true love as a teenager.