Plot: After suffering a near-death experience as a young girl, Darby Harper gains the ability to see dead people. As a result, she becomes introverted and shut off from her high school peers and prefers to spend time counseling lonely spirits who have unfinished business on earth. But all that changes when Capri, the Queen Bee of the school’s most exclusive clique, unexpectedly dies in a freak hair straightening accident, resulting in the obvious cancellation of her upcoming “Sweet 17.” Capri, however, pleads with Darby from the other side to intervene and convince Capri’s friends to proceed with the party as planned. In order to appease the wrath of the undead diva, Darby must emerge from her self-imposed exile and reinvent herself — which along the way allows her to find new joy back in the land of the living.
Review: There are two types of teen movies: good ones and bad ones. Sure, there are some that are so bad that they are good, but those are rare occurrences. A solid high school movie works when it treats the subject matter genuinely but isn’t afraid to make fun of it at the same time. Movies like Mean Girls, Bring It On, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Can’t Hardly Wait all work well because they never pander to the audience nor do they treat the young characters as less than their adult counterparts. But, there are hundreds of films made for less discerning audiences that have peppered networks like ABC Family and The Disney Channel that serve as glorified sitcoms complete with cliche characters and storylines. I was fully prepared for Darby and the Dead to be another throwaway teen film that checked all of the boxes for a bad movie about cliques and high school but instead found a pretty funny movie about fitting in, being your own person, and (surprisingly) mortality.
You can judge me all you want, but I had a lot of fun with Darby and the Dead. It likely helped that, despite the charming trailer, I went in with no expectations. Recognizing star Riele Downs from her standout turn on Nickelodeon sitcom Henry Danger, I was prepared for this movie to be in the same vein as the countless basic cable movies I mentioned previously. Instead, Darby and the Dead channels elements of Mean Girls as well as the dark comedy of Heathers but in a way that is just enough of a PG-13 to appeal to older teens but accessible enough for the tween crowd. While it still checks all of the required elements of the teen movie formula, Darby and the Dead does so with some fresh talent who look like high schoolers, act like teenagers, but also never seem like an adult’s idea of what kids talk like these days.
After losing her mother in a tragic accident and almost dying herself, Darby Harper (Riele Downs) gains the ability to see the recently deceased. Taking it upon herself to help them with their final wishes so they can pass on to the afterlife peacefully, Darby has isolated herself from her father (Derek Luke) and her classmates, including her former best friend and now most popular girl in school Capri Donahue (Auli’i Cravalho). Capri misses no chance to tease Darby, often to the chagrin of Capri’s boyfriend James (Asher Angel) who is friendly towards Darby. Darby also avoids new kid Alex (Chosen Jacobs) who shares similar interests to her. Darby also spends a lot of time with Gary (Tony Danza), a “dead-o” friend who hasn’t passed over quite yet. As we meet the various players in Darby’s life, she often breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience to explain the rules and cliques at her school, Frederick Douglass High.
When Capri dies in a freak accident, she begins to haunt Darby. Capri decides she is not going to pass on to the afterlife until she forces Darby to work with her best friends and fellow cheerleaders Piper (Nicola Maines), Taylor (Kylie Liya Page), and Bree (Genneya Walton) to throw her planned Sweet 17 party. Capri also discovers she has the ability to move objects despite being a ghost and threatens Darby until she agrees to plan the party. Darby then gets a crash course in being popular as Capri guides her to become her de facto replacement. Darby struggles with balancing her newfound popularity with feelings for Alex as well as helping James get over his grief. Darby also has to find a way to keep helping the dead-os, including newcomer Mel (Wayne Knight). Like a supernatural She’s All That, Darby waivers between hating her makeover and embracing it while Capri learns a lot about herself as she hears what everyone really thinks now that she is dead. Both Darby and Capri get to follow a redemption arc while also rediscovering their own lost friendship.
Writer Becca Greene, adapting a story from Wenonah Wilm, does a good job of keeping this story wholesome and light despite the morbid subject. The dead-os are not treated as monsters or given a ghostly appearance but are just characters whom only Darby can see. Director Silas Howard (Dickinson, Pose) injects just the right balance of humor and snark to make these characters come alive while never abandoning the over-the-top subject matter. Derek Luke is appropriately grounded as Darby’s widower father but he also never turns into a formulaic dad. Asher Angel, a breakout in Shazam!, does the best he can with a thin role as does It actor Chosen Jacobs who is the most charming character in the movie and one I wish we had seen more of. Everyone from the main cast down to the supporting players has fun with this movie but it rests on the shoulders of Riele Downs and Auili’i Cravalho. Downs definitely has the talent to lead films stronger than this in the future and Cravalho distinguishes herself well from her voice role as Moana by channeling Rachel McAdams’ Regina George and making Capri into more of a sympathetic character than I expected.
Darby and the Dead is a movie that is better than I expected from a streaming original and likely could have been a modest hit on the big screen in the pre-COVID era. Riele Downs and Auili’i Cravalho make for a solid pair of leads and both inject a dose of humor and maturity into a movie that could easily have turned into a cookie-cutter teen comedy. Darby and the Dead is good enough that adults watching with their teens will not feel bored and likely will have as much fun with this story as their kids. I wish that the movie had spent a little more time developing the supporting characters but they all still get the opportunity to shine. This is a welcome and original teen movie that plays with the expected elements of the genre but still manages to stand on its own as an enjoyable watch.
Darby and the Dead is now streaming on Hulu.