Review: In ‘Yes Day,’ kids get their way for 24 hours

Like an innocuous kid version of “The Purge,” Miguel Arteta’s “Yes Day” imagines an annual 24-hour holiday of lawlessness.

The concept comes from Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s 2009 picture book, which suggested a day when parents — regularly such fonts of “No!” — have to answer in the positive to their children’s demands. For some, the idea had real appeal not just for giving kids a shot at decision-making freedom but for momentarily relieving parents of the burden of constant disapproval.

One parent, in particular, took to “Yes Day”: Jennifer Garner. The actress has previously spoken on social media about holding the holiday with her three children. And she’s a producer of the film, which debuts Friday on Netflix.

“No is part of the job,” narrates Allison Torres (Garner) in the film’s opening scenes. But so stern is Allison — the bad cop next to her more easy-going husband Carlos (Edgar Ramirez) — that her three children’s school projects suggest a dictatorship in need of a coup. One makes a video comparing her to Stalin and Mussolini.

When a guidance counselor (Nat Faxon) suggests “Yes Day” as a remedy, Allison goes along, with a few stipulations. You can’t break laws and you’ve got to stay within 20 miles of home. This leads to a day of wall-to-wall fun, with bed-jumping, ice-cream feasts, a car wash trip with the windows down and a surprise theme-park visit. The day tests both Allison’s helicopter parenting impulses and the kids’ own desire for independence. That’s especially true for 14-year-old Katie (Jenna Ortega, an impressively poised young actor), who wants to attend a concert without her mom.

It’s all lightly predictable as the family works out a level of comfort that isn’t all yes or entirely no. There’s something to be said for lower-stakes family films, a genre that has increasingly aped the world-ending scale of superhero films. (One pandemic discovery for my family was 1974’s “Swallows and Amazons,” a charming British film about kids just playing on a lake. On their own, they’re plenty capable of making their own tents and adventures.)

“Yes Day” isn’t nearly so sweet. Arteta (“The Good Girl,” “Cedar Rapids”) has an underrated ability at crafting comic, humanistic movies out of commercial concepts. But “Yes Day” slides too often into contrived, loudly scored montages of “fun” that don’t transfer to those of us watching. And while Garner and Ramirez are both very fine actors, neither of them is funny. Not to be negative on “Yes Day,” but it would be a lot better if, say, Will Ferrell and Maya Rudolph played the parents. (Though what movie wouldn’t be improved with that casting?) The film’s best moments come curtesy of Faxon and the very funny Arturo Castro, the “Broad City” actor who makes every scene he’s in better. Here he plays a hapless and needy police officer.

Of course, after a pandemic year that has ruled out so much for kids, “Yes Day” may be a welcome reprieve for them. My kids, naturally, loved the idea and will probably take me to task for saying anything but “Yes” to “Yes Day.”

“Yes Day,” a Netflix release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for some rude and suggestive material, and brief language. Running time: 86 minutes. Two stars out of four.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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