This Dash & Lily review contains no spoilers.
With a big, beating heart and a surprising amount of insight, Netflix’s series Dash & Lily is here to remind us of the world outside and the magical feeling of falling in love in the “before-time.” Based on the young adult book series Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares from Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (who wrote Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) Dash & Lily continues in the proud tradition of Netflix romcoms and Netflix holiday fare of small-scale stories with warmth.
Lily (Midori Francis of Good Boys, Ocean’s 8), a shy teenager who’s sick of being the only one without a partner, optimistically puts a red moleskin notebook in New York’s famous Strand bookstore among some of her favorite books (Salinger) for a fellow bookworm to find. Inside the book is a puzzle and a dare, which heartbroken loner Dash (Austin Abrams of Euphoria, The Walking Dead) finds and is eager to solve. That sets off a series of back and forth challenges and an ongoing conversation via the notebook, which travels throughout the city, as the two fall for one another and try to convince each other that their view of Christmas (Lily is firmly pro, Dash is surrounded by Christmas breakups and therefore anti) is the correct one.
The lead performances make a huge difference here – it’s not hard to imagine a version of the show where Dash never stops being a sad, pedantic quart-life crisis Gen Z Kevin McAllister. Luckily, Austin Abrams quickly brings charm and vulnerability to the role and does his damndest to give Chris Evans a run for his cable-knit money. Midori Francis has a quiet, grounded internal strength as a performer that commands attention. Lily’s great-aunt Mrs. Basil E (Jodi Long, Sullivan & Son), the show’s version of a fairy godmother and possibly the only useful adult in the series, is an excellent addition who gets just the right amount of screen time. Dash’s best friend Boomer (Dante Brown) brings a fun spoiler-y element.
Netflix is a thoughtful step above the Christmas competitors in a few ways. Small surprises and red herrings make the viewing experience genuinely delightful, especially for a genre that’s expected to be predictable, and the presence of genuine character arcs can’t be oversold. Diversity informs the story in a number of aspects that might seem small to some but will make others feel seen. While other channels struggle with inclusion in their Christmas offerings, Netflix effortlessly incorporates Lily’s heritage and has a Hanukkah episode, still a rarity for the genre. Several LGBTQ characters populate the story, in addition to Lily’s brother Langston (Troy Iwata, Be More Chill on Broadway), his romantic interest Benny (Diego Guevara, Strapped for Danger), and their shot at romance.
The writers also flex their muscles when it comes to character development. Lily actually has real reasons for being shy that move the story forward, rather than having “shy pretty girl” as her entire personality. Dash says he dislikes Christmas because of a breakup, but it doesn’t take long to see that there’s more under the surface there. Dash & Lily benefits from the longer runtime of a show versus a movie, but wisely keeps it moving with eight brisk episodes that clock in at roughly 22 minutes each.
Well aware of the legacy it steps into, Dash & Lily plays with elements of You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless and Seattle, where the protagonists spend much of the film apart, managing to pack in plenty of genuine romance and butterfly-level chemistry in spite of that constraint. A scene with the leads unknowingly listening to Fairytale of New York from The Pogues in split screen feels like a knowing ode to When Harry Met Sally’s scene with the leads watching Casablanca together but apart, over the phone.
As with most book adaptations, the world of Dash and Lily’s version of New York feels lived in, helped along by filming on location. The running gag of Collation, the fake Pixar movie about a stapler and a stack of papers who fall in love, is one of the better details. Unlike Holidate, Dash & Lily has a sweeter, more magical worldview that puts it squarely in the young adult category, and also makes it just right for escaping real-world anxiety at the most magical time of the year. Like Nick & Norah before it, Dash & Lily features and underground music show, a bookish girl trying to come out of her shell, a lanky guy pursuing her, and a stellar soundtrack.
The soundtrack to Netflix movies is often memorable, like Something Great and Let it Snow, and here it’s a mix of classics and fresh picks. Joni Mitchell’s River plays a key role in the story, serving as a touchpoint that we revisit from different characters’ perspectives. The Waitress’s offbeat favorite Christmas Wrapping is a spiritual cool aunt to Dash & Lily. Audiences of any age will hear at least one tune they’ll want to add to their Christmas mix.
There’s not much to dislike here, other than the overall flavor. YA Christmas romance is likely too saccharine for some, but that should be clear from the preview. One cameo goes so far beyond stunt casting that it threatens to grind the entire proceeding to a halt. Truly the only way to get over it is to simply pretend it never happened, so the show does, and I recommend you do as well. Both leads have other potential love interests, and while Dash’s is handled with surprising maturity, the script can’t seem to decide what to do with Lily’s, leaving him halfway between jerk and the lead.
Similar to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before in tone and Juliet Naked for the way it can make you want to fall back in love with someone through the written word, Dash & Lily is worth a watch even as a non-Christmas show. The highest praise for a show in the year 2020 is that it actually made me forget COVID while watching, rather than constantly wishing they were wearing masks or worrying that people weren’t sitting far enough apart. If you’re hoping to lose yourself in some bonafide Christmas magic, Dash & Lily has you covered.