Darby and the Dead (2022) Review!!

Synopsis – Followed by Darby Harper, who is granted the ability to see ghosts after suffering a near death experience in her childhood. Then, she runs a side business counseling local spirits in her spare time.

My Take – Teen comedies seem to have found a new shtick – having their female protagonists narrate their own stories and break the fourth wall while doing so. A concept which has grown fashionable of late since the popularity of Phoebe Waller-Bridge‘s Amazon series, Fleabag, and doubled down in features like Netflix’s Persuasion (2022), both Enola Holmes films and Honor Society (2022).

And while the idea of the protagonist bonding with a dead might seem like a unique additional mix for the genre, sadly that too have been done in recent years, most notably in the Lana Condor-led Netflix series Boo, Bitch and the Victoria Justice-led Netflix film Afterlife of the Party (2021).

Nevertheless, this latest Hulu release, directed by Silas Howard (A Kid Like Jake) from a screenplay written by Wenonah Wilms and Becca Greene, still manages to remain a modestly fun teen comedy throughout, mainly as it takes a somewhat comical slant to the topic of psychic medium abilities with the help of overused traps.

Though the execution is mostly muddied, with the help of its refreshingly diverse cast and a compelling premise that pays homage to landmark teen films like Mean Girls (2004) and Heathers (1988), the film is never afraid to try and forge its own path.

Sure, it could have been wittier, funnier, darker, and a tad more innovative, but the film manages to be charming and enjoyable mainly due to the lead performances from Riele Downs and Auli’i Cravalho. Making it a somewhat welcome original teen film that plays with the expected elements of the genre but still succeeds in being enjoyable.

The story follows Darby (Riele Downs), a high school student, who at the age of seven following a near-death experience, which also killed her mother, gains the ability to see and talk to the dead, to whom she refers to as deados. Though Darby starts a side business to help the deados move to the afterlife by helping them take care of things they could not do while alive, over time, Darby retreated from all activities she loved, like cheerleading, because of its painful association with her mom, and began finding it easier to seek solace with the dead than the living.

Resulting in a complete disconnection with her friends from that world, one such friend being Capricorn “Capri” Donahue (Auli’i Cravalho), the popular cheerleader. However, that all changes when Capri dies in a freak accident. And though Darby encourages the deado Capri to cross over, she feels she’s not quite ready yet, and instead wants Darby to get her 17th birthday party going again.

An impossible task as Darby is practically invisible in the school, which makes it difficult for her to maneuver or instigate any kind of party activities. But seeing no other choice but to do what Capri says, Darby undergoes a makeover to insert herself in the cheerleader’s social group to convince her friends to move forward with Capri’s plans despite her death.

In turn opening Darby’s world to new possibilities outside of spending all her time with the dead. Yes, right from the opening segment, it is obvious how the film’s story will go beat for beat. Acting is a mix of teen films that older generations have seen before, writers Becca Greene and Wenonah Wilm, do a good job of keeping the film wholesome and light despite the morbid subject. The deados are not treated as monsters or given a ghostly appearance but are just characters whom only Darby can see.

Also, director Silas Howard injects just the right balance of humor and few twists to make it feel something different in order to keep viewers entertained throughout. There is some great humor mixed in, with several laugh out loud moments, mostly surrounding Capri and her superficial cheerleader friends, and the deados bring in a much needed change of pace every so often, so much so that we would have loved to see more of them and their problems throughout the film, even if it would have meant extending the runtime just a little bit. Empowering friendships between women, the isolation of grief and refraining from judgment are just a few of the many major themes tackled with verve and humor.

The genius of the film lies in its apparent simplicity. The high-concept set-up easily could have fallen victim to convoluted, unnecessary plotting; instead, every decision just makes sense. Sure, there’s a classic third act blow up that you can see coming from a mile away. You will have to suspend disbelief when it comes to how easily Darby is able to run with Capri’s crew after doing well at cheer tryouts.

Not to mention characters seem to pick and choose when they notice Darby talking to the air. And we still haven’t escaped the fourth wall break in teen media but the film uses it effectively and it’s an opportunity for the audience to feel like we’re on this ride with Darby and that she’s let us into her story.

But where the film struggles is with its message. It wants to be a deep, heartfelt exploration of grief. As Darby and Capri have both lost something important, 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.

And in trying to do them all justice, the film relies on one too many clichéd turns to tie the story together and shortchanges some of the more interesting parts of the story. Still, it somewhat works, regardless of its clichés and conventional plot. Mainly as the performances elevate the material, and the dynamic between the characters is interesting enough to have held my attention until the end.

Riele Downs makes for a magnificent leading lady; she fleshes out Darby’s vulnerabilities so well, especially when there’s so much she keeps repressed, like her grief over her mom’s death. Auli’i Cravalho too shines as the Gen-Z version of Regina George. Many still know Cravalho as the sweet-faced Disney princess behind the voice of Moana, so to see her slay as the shallow, popular mean girl is delightful.

Asher Angel is also pretty funny as the co-dependent, guitar-playing, grieving boyfriend. Chosen Jacobs is underused, but gets the benefit of playing the romantic lead with decent development. In supporting roles, Derek Luke, Tony Danza and Wayne Knight are effortlessly endearing. On the whole, ‘Darby and the Dead’ is a mostly fun teen comedy that embraces its quirky and whimsical sides to winning effect.

Directed –

Starring – Riele Downs, Auli’i Cravalho, Chosen Jacobs

Rated – PG13

Run Time – 100 minutes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.