After a near-death experience, Darby discovers she can see the dead. But Darby isn’t freaked out by all the ghosts, no, she decides to help them resolve their unfinished business so they can finally cross over. She devotes so much of her energy to who she calls the “deados” that she earns a reputation as a bit of a weirdo at school. At the beginning of junior year, two events throw her carefully curated life completely off the rails. First is the arrival of Alex, an odd boy new to her public school who Darby finds herself falling for in spite of her reservations. Second is the unexpected death of Capri, the most popular girl in school and Darby’s former bestie turned arch nemesis.
Capri’s spirit lingers, refusing to accept her fate. She strongarms Darby into becoming popular enough to put on Capri’s sweet 17 birthday bash anyway, a plot that backfires on both of them. The more popular Darby gets, the less time she has for the deados that need her or the boy who has a crush on her…and the more Capri resents Darby supplanting her in the social hierarchy. Soon enough, it’s medium versus ghost in this lighthearted YA supernatural romp.
Darby and the Dead is full of little moments of joy. I loved how Darby’s version of making herself popular involved a twist out. Often when Black girls are given a TV makeover to look hot (according to Western standards), she ends up with straight hair, but Darby went back to her natural curls. There’s a scene with Nicole Maines hanging out in the girls’ locker room with her Mean Girl friends and everyone is totally cool with it. (If you don’t know Maines’ background, she was at the center of an anti-discrimination case where the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that trans people can use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.) It was so nice to have 100 minutes of no racism, sexism, queerphobia, or transphobia. Breaking the fourth wall isn’t easy to pull off, but Riele Downs nails it. Particularly at the end when she has her heart to heart with Alex (played by the delightful Chosen Jacobs) and during the epilogue. If you liked how She-Hulk played with the fourth wall trope, you’ll probably also like how Darby and the Dead does it.
Where the movie struggles is with its message. It wants to be a deep, heartfelt exploration of grief. Darby and Capri have both lost something important—for Darby it’s her mother, for Capri it’s her, well, life. Now they’re facing futures they aren’t ready for because they are unwilling to process their past. Darby hides away with the deados, filling her time doing things for everyone else so she won’t have to deal with how empty her life is. Capri obsesses over her over the top birthday party, desperate to hold onto her real life instead of moving onto her afterlife. Both girls find ways to control the uncontrollable, and both suffer for it.
That being said, the weight of that message is too great for the weak script, and the whole thing collapses by the end. The trouble is the movie wants to be both a serious teen drama and a fun supernatural comedy at the same time, but instead of blending them together in complementary ways, screenwriter Becca Greene just stitched together the most overdone teen tropes and called it a day. Darby is blamed for changing her personality when she only does so because Capri forced her to, and then for some bizarre reason takes responsibility for problems she didn’t cause and was also a victim of. Capri, meanwhile, has numerous opportunities to atone for her wicked ways, but the film never holds her accountable because it wants us to root for the two of them to be friends again.
There is little pop culture or social awareness, either. What year does this story take place? Who knows. “Sometime within the last decade” is as close as I could figure. Filming it in South Africa didn’t help matters. It so obviously doesn’t look like the US that every time I saw the coast it dragged me out of the story. This wasn’t one of those Toronto subbing for New York situations. The audience is never told where Darby lives, what her family does there, or how she feels about her town. The script is so anonymous that you could shoot it just about anywhere without altering a single sentence. The film isn’t helped by Silas Howard’s lackluster directing. It’s trite at best, bland at worst. His directing, compounded by the mediocre cinematography and editing, gives Darby and the Dead a mid-aughts Disney Channel movie feel.
The script lacks meaningful commentary and doesn’t manage to either deconstruct or lampshade the endless stream of lazy tropes. On one hand, the film shines by casting mostly queer, trans, and BIPOC actors; but on the other, it comes off more like colorblind casting than intentionally diverse casting. There is little in the dialogue to indicate culture or marginalized experiences. Darby and Capri could be literally any race, ethnicity, or gender and the story would remain pretty much the same. Greene’s script had nothing to say about any of its characters. They’re written as stock roles, not people.
Yet despite all the technical issues behind the camera, I still found the movie charming and enjoyable, largely because of the cast. Riele Downs and Auli’i Cravalho play their parts perfectly. They bring a metric ton of personality to what are essentially rough character sketches. It’s too bad the film wasn’t up to their level. I hope they one day have a chance to take on meatier films that actually challenge them, because those young women can act. I loved Maines on Supergirl, and was pleased to see her make her character of Piper so much fun. Jacobs has also been in a few things I’ve seen over the years, and he’s turning out to be a fine actor who should have a long, steady television career ahead of him. With all the shallowness of the script, the young actors make it work. They sell the jokes, the complicated relationships, and the heart and soul.
Overall, Darby and the Dead is a fun if inconsequential movie. It’s a fine way to spend an hour or so, especially if you have fantasy-loving teens and tweens to occupy. I wish the people behind the camera had put as much effort into it as the actors in front of the camera, but regardless, it’s an enjoyable diversion. With a compelling premise and sparkling acting, it was hard not to fall at least a little in love.
Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).