The cinematic response to an adult losing their happy-go-lucky attitude—and their sense of self—to the realistic sleep-deprivation, over-protectiveness and general increase in responsibility of parenthood usually falls into some easily recognizable tropes. The character could do a full reversal, becoming the “fun mom/dad” that allows their children unfettered access to things like house parties and substances ripe for consumption. These characters go by their first names (“Please, call me Carol!”). Others let the pressure and frustration build until they break and do something wildly out of character that throws things dramatically into flux. Yes Day, director Miguel Arteta’s Netflix adaptation of Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld children’s book, thankfully dodges both categories by virtue of a wholesome and madcap devotion to its central kiddy gimmick: A full day when parents can’t say no.
It’s a Jim Carrey sort of premise, warping Yes Man (itself kind of a spin on Liar Liar’s compulsory character trait) into a Nickelodeon-esque kids-run-the-world movie. This level of heightened manic pixie dream parenting requires a similar Carrey level of energy and commitment. The Torres family seems happy to attempt it. Mom (Jennifer Garner) keeps kids Katie (Jenna Ortega), Nando (Julian Lerner) and Ellie (Everly Carganilla) in line while Dad (Édgar Ramírez) is more of a wimp that only lays down the law at work. The not-so-iron fist with which their mom keeps them in line is enough for the kids to act out in innocuous but still cutting ways, leading to the decision to hold a sort personalized kid-oriented Purge. For 24 hours, things go nuts. But in a fun way!
Arteta’s made his name with offbeat, darker comedies—dropping the kid-centric Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day between hyper-adult things like Duck Butter—and he injects enough strangeness into the film’s proceedings to keep its rote elements mostly engaging for the older crowd. Part of this is the savvy casting and utilization of some side characters (Nat Faxon, Fortune Feimster and Arturo Castro, who all turn in fun performances), and consistently coloring the kinds of standard kid fantasies composing the plot (eating way too much ice cream, going to an amusement park, a wild concert) with unexpected details.
Silly setpieces have familiar aesthetics made just a little more gross, zany or smart thanks to Justin Malen’s script. Even disappointing, uninspired larger-scale action (a four-team water balloon war that’s never quite as colorful or epic as it wants to be) is built on foundations of strange gags (the teams were gathered by a promise that it was actually an audition for a reality show). In fact, the one larger scene—the third act climax—where an underlying piece of weirdness isn’t shaking things up falls pretty soundly flat. The film’s so over-the-top goofy from the beginning that, well, it’s hard to inject teary stakes into a film that’s biggest moment up until that point was needing to eat a mountain of ice cream in half an hour. But Yes Day’s true selling point is the people eating said ice cream. The movie would be a slog with a dull central family, but the Torres clan is especially winning.
Both Garner and Ramírez are funny and vibrant, selling not only their own characters but the relationship between them with ease. In fact, they might be a bit too vibrant, considering these two agelessly attractive actors are supposed to be parents run ragged by their day-to-day negativity. Charm aside, Garner goes flat-out nuts for a bit (which is fun to see) and Ramírez’s amusingly wimpy performance is a nice compliment to the warmth he brings. Arteta’s hand in crafting the family’s relationships to one another is completely effective and deftly unseen—it feels cohesive without excessive filmmaking or narrative flourish to convince us. That achievement’s secret sauce is Ortega, whose energetic precision in her deliveries remind you a bit of a young Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Having a talented performer be the bridge between the adults and the younger kids is essential for making both halves, maturity and immaturity, legible to the target audience.
While aimed at a pretty young crowd, Yes Day still has some salient things to say about trust, self-consciousness and responsibility that’re delivered with enough clarity between and throughout the antics that there’s at least something going on beneath the fluff. It also happens to be causally diverse: L.A.’s background population actually feels real and compliments the tangibly bicultural, bilingual central family. It’s a small detail, but one that’s often missing from films—especially the kind of for-the-whole-family fun where its visibility is needed most. In fact, from its rainbow color scheme that rejects any palette aside from “more” to its ultimately sweet kids (even when given free reign to act out, the worst they do is host a science fair-esque house party full of experiments), Yes Day is exactly the kind of peppy, feel-good affair as its title would lead you to believe. It’s a lightweight film befitting its premise’s “good vibes only” origins—and its uninspiring construction makes its solid performances a pleasant surprise rather than a compliment to an already good movie—but you could do a lot worse than say “Yes” to Yes Day.
Directors: Miguel Arteta
Writers: Justin Malen
Stars: Jennifer Garner, Édgar Ramírez, Jenna Ortega, Julian Lerner, Everly Carganilla
Release Date: March 12, 2021 (Netflix)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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