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Film Review: Uneven “Nightbooks” Knits a Twisted Yarn of a Fairy Tale

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 15th, 2021

Film poster: “Nightbooks”

Nightbooks (David Yarovesky, 2021) 2 out of 4 stars.

Alex loves to write scary stories. One might say he is obsessed with horror. Unfortunately, no one other than his parents supports his habit. And so, one day, angry and broken-hearted following a nasty incident at school, he takes the elevator down to his building’s basement, planning to burn all his work in the furnace. But a funny thing happens on the way to his destination: the elevator makes an unplanned stop on a dark and deserted floor. There, Alex finds an open apartment with a TV playing his favorite movie (The Lost Boys) and a slice of pumpkin pie. Don’t do it, Alex! Don’t eat the pie! Which he does. Cut to black.

So begins David Yarovesky’s Nightbooks, adapted from J.A. White’s 2018 eponymous book, and into the night we plunge. When Alex (Winslow Fegley, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made) wakes up, he is in a strange room, one that spits him back inside when he tries to jump out the window. And then, standing above him looms an imposing figure, a witch named Natacha (Krysten Ritter, Netflix’s Jessica Jones series). “Read me scary stories every night,” she says, “and I’ll spare your life.” Seems like a dream come true for someone like Alex.

l-r: Winslow Fegley and Lidya Jewett in NIGHTBOOKS. Cr. Christos Kalohoridis © Netflix

Except that isn’t, as he swore off the stuff, and the life-and-death pressure doesn’t help his writer’s block. Fortunately, there’s another kid around, a fellow prisoner named Yasmin (Lidya Jewett, The Darkest Minds), and she shows him the ropes, which in this case means learning how to stay alive. There are so many secrets swirling around, many in the vast library impossibly housed in the seemingly limitless apartment (it’s magic!), that surely one of them will either help Alex and Yasmin escape or, at the very least, inspire a new story.

The film has its share of positives, among them certain aspects of production design (though many look derivative of other films), including a night garden and Natacha’s costumes. Tone-wise, though, Yarovesky (Brightburn) never settles on one particular style, alternating between family-friendly quasi-violence to something far more sinister. The ending, especially, which reveals another witch and brings in allusions to the “Hansel and Gretel” fairy tale, is a jumbled mess.

Krysten Ritter in NIGHTBOOKS. Cr. Christos Kalohoridis © Netflix

Try as they might (and they do try, the actors can’t quite elevate the material to all that it could be, and not even the obligatory animal sidekick helps matters. Still, Nightbooks offers a positive message (hardly uncommon in coming-of-age stories, but so what) that no one should let others tell them how to behave. To thine own self be true. Who could argue with that? If only the movie truly were its own unique self.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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