An outcast girl, Darby Harper (Riele Downs) can commune with ghosts after a freak accident as a child. Due to her severe lack of socializing with the living, she retreats from the high school social scene. Enter Capri (Moana’s Auli’i Cravalho), the popular girl who was formally Darby’s best friend and now the queen bee cheerleader. At the cusp of turning 17, the self-centered cheerleader suffers an accident that actually kills her. Now, Capri has to handle her unfinished business before moving on to heaven, and who so happens to be the nearest medium to help her do so? Darby, the teenage ghost whisperer. To help the cheerleader pass on, the outcast must become popular and host the epic Sweet 17 party Capri has been planning for months. A deal is struck between the two, but the cost will be much less trivial than a party.
If one thinks the summary for Darby and the Dead sounds awfully familiar, that’s because it most certainly is. Darby and the Dead may have different plot beats, but it fits neatly into the living-ghost-bond-over-death dramedy of recent years, most notably the Lana Condor-led Netflix series Boo, Bitch and the Victoria Justice-led Netflix film Afterlife of the Party. Or, if one is of a particular generation, they may recall the 2011 ABC Family (now Freeform) movie Teen Spirit, where a teen cheerleader is tasked with making the unpopular girl prom queen to pass on to heaven. Needless to say, this concept is not new, but what Darby and the Dead illuminates is how easy it is to fall into clichéd traps despite being a charming little romp.
Within the opening segment, it is obvious how Darby and the Dead’s story will go beat for beat. However, Riele Downs is a magnetic lead, and Auli’i Cravalho is just as dynamic. The two have incredible chemistry and make the best of a tepid rehash of familiar tropes and story arcs. There is a desire to see the two actresses play around with wittier dialogue, but beggars can’t be choosers. Becca Greene’s script (from a story by Wenonah Wilms) is not without charm, but the conventions that suppress this fun premise are hard to overlook.
Again, Downs and Cravalho rise above it all and are consistently engaging. Tony Danza and Wayne Knight are fun surprises, with Danza being effortlessly endearing. That man has perfected the art of charm! Nicole Maines, who previously starred as Dreamer in The CW’s Supergirl, is… present, but heavily underutilized; Suffice it to say Maines could have been given more to do. Chosen Jacobs is also underused, but he has the benefit of playing the romantic lead with decent development. His chemistry with Downs is palpable, so his limited screen time is hardly a problem.
With its endlessly predictable nature, Darby and the Dead has the potential to be welcomed and embraced by fans of teen comedies. Silas Howard’s directing is not as flashy as it could be, but good enough for a basic teen dramedy. There is room for innovation and creativity with how the premise if showcased, but luckily there is enough flare, most notably in the production and costume design, to keep viewers engaged. But like so many projects that coming to streaming under the Disney banner, this perfectly fine movie will be buried on Hulu with little fanfare upon its arrival. The flick from 20th Century Studios is also poorly timed, as this is very much a Halloween-type release that is being released during the first week of December. So much of the success of a film relies on factors outside the actual story; a well-polished release strategy can make the mediocre more than it actually is.
What makes Darby and the Dead even more unfortunate is the fact that it is actually entertaining. It can easily capture audiences’ attention if it had a fraction of what it needs in the promotion arena. An abrupt release on Hulu is way less than it deserves. Darby and the Dead is far from a dud. Sure, it could be witter, funnier, darker, and a tad more innovative, but the film is solid overall. Instead of going the route of making an original story, the filmmaking team might have been better off adapting Meg Cabot’s underrated YA series The Mediator. However, with a stellar leading pair who make the most of the screenplay, Darby and the Dead has enough to keep audiences moved and laughing on occasion, though it is unclear whether it can bring viewers back for a rewatch. The only certainty is that Downs and Cravalho are great together and should have the privilege of leading more projects.
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Darby and the Dead begins streaming on Hulu Friday, December 2. It is 100 minutes long and rated PG-13 for strong language, suggestive material and some teen partying.