Review: ‘Darby and the Dead,’ starring Riele Downs and Auli’i Cravalho

January 2, 2023

by Carla Hay

Riele Downs and Auli’i Cravalho (both pictured in center) in “Darby and the Dead” (Photo by Marcos Cruz/20th Century Studios/Hulu)

“Darby and the Dead”

Directed by Silas Howard

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the fantasy comedy film “Darby and the Dead” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white, Asian and Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After a popular but snobby girl in high school dies in a freak accident, she returns as a ghost to haunt her psychic former best friend to throw a tribute party for her, and the former friend goes from being a social outcast to being the most popular student in the school.

Culture Audience: “Darby and the Dead” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching teen comedies that are “dumbed down” for audiences, and lazily mix together plots that were in superior movies.

Riele Downs, Asher Angel and Auli’i Cravalho in “Darby and the Dead” (Photo by Marcos Cruz/20th Century Studios/Hulu)

The cringeworthy comedy “Darby and the Dead” is as fresh and funny as a rotting corpse. This dreadful dud relentlessly insults its characters and viewers, as it clumsily rips off ideas from better movies. It’s easy to see why 20th Century Studios dumped “Darby and the Dead” on a streaming service instead of releasing the movie in theaters: “Darby and the Dead” is the type of awful movie that viewers would want refunds for if they had the misfortune of buying movie tickets for it.

Directed by Silas Howard, “Darby and the Dead” (written by Becca Greene and Wenonah Wilms) was originally titled “Darby Harper Wants You to Know.” It’s about a psychic teenage girl who can see dead people and is then haunted by a former best friend while they argue about issues having to do with cliques and popularity at their high school. You don’t have to be a psychic to know that this subject matter has been so overdone with predictable endings in comedy films about teenagers, any movie with the same concept has do something special to stand out from the forgettable mediocrity of most of these formulaic teen films.

Unfortunately, everything about “Darby and the Dead” looks like it was made by out-of-touch adults who took the cheesiest aspects of teen comedies from the 1980s and 1990s and just shoveled it into “Darby and the Dead” while making a few technological updates for the early 2020s. “Darby and the Dead” has the benefit of some talented cast members, but they don’t have believable chemistry as friends or enemies in the movie. In “Darby and the Dead,” they look exactly like what they are: cast members in their 20s pretending to be teens in high school and trying too hard to be comical while saying their very unfunny lines of dialogue.

The title character of “Darby and the Dead” is Darby Harper (played Riele Downs), a sarcastic loner, who’s about 16 or 17 years old. Darby is also a psychic who lives with her widowed father Ben (played by Derek Luke) in an unnamed U.S. city. (“Darby and the Dead” was actually filmed in South Africa.) Darby’s constant voiceover narration gets annoying after a while, because what she thinks are witty observations are actually just dull rants from a teenager who doesn’t want to admit that she’s bitter about her life.

When she was 7 years old, Darby (played by Milan Maphike) witnessed her mother (played by Kim Syster) drown while they were both swimming in an ocean. The movie also shows a brief flashback of Darby (played by Emily Maphike), when Darby was about 13 or 14 years old. “I was never the same,” Darby explains about how the death of her mother changed Darby. “I see dead people everywhere. The dead needed my help.” Darby says she turned her back on the living world and started what she calls her “side hustle: counseling dead people.”

She calls herself a “spiritual messenger, of sorts” and the ghosts who still haunt Earth have “unfinished business.” Darby further explains what happened to the ghosts who received her help: “Spirits were able to cross over, which is pretty beautiful. Word spread in the purgatory circuit, and my after-school job took off. There’s no pay, but if dead people’s gratitude had value, I’d be [Amazon’s billionaire founder] Jeff Bezos.”

Now that it’s been established that Darby has such a huge ego, she thinks she’s the Jeff Bezos of the ghost world, Darby becomes quite insufferable for much of the movie, as she shows a mixture of self-pity and arrogance about being a pariah at her high school. On the one hand, Darby likes to brag about how she thinks she’s too smart and too special to mingle with the common people who go to her high school. On the other hand, it’s obvious that she desperately craves their approval.

One of the reasons why she’s treated like an outsider is that anti-social Darby talks out loud to the ghosts that no one else can see. Therefore, people wonder if Darby has some type of mental illness. When it comes to being shunned by her peers, Darby also puts a lot of blame on her former best friend Capri Donohue (played by Auli’i Cravalho), who is a classmate of Darby’s at Frederick Douglass High School. Darby says in a voicever that Capri is the “head phony” at the school, which Darby calls “a torturous realm, where I am forced to spend my days.”

Capri is currently the queen bee of the most popular clique in school. Capri’s three subservient sidekicks are Bree (played by Genneya Walton), Taylor (played by Kylie Liya Page) and Piper (played by Nicole Maines), whose personalities are indistinguishable from each other. Because Darby has a reputation for being weird, Capri ended their friendship. Capri and her “mean girls” clique also ridicule and insult Darby any chance that they can get.

Adding to the animosity between the two ex-pals is (teen comedy cliché alert) they both want to date the same guy. His name is James Harris (played by Asher Angel, in a generic teen boyfriend role), whom Darby describes as a “band geek” she’s had a crush on since sixth grade. However, when James went on “The Voice” TV talent show as a contestant and had his 15 minutes of fame, Capri suddenly took an interest in him, turned on the charm, and now Capri and James are dating each other. James has fallen hard for Capri, but Capri is not nearly as smitten. Capri is interested in James as long as she thinks that dating him will boost her popularity.

Meanwhile (teen comedy cliché alert), a new transfer student named Alex (played by Chosen Jacobs) arrives at the school. Principal Morgan (played by Anthony Oseyemi) tells Darby, of all people, to be Alex’s study buddy in school. It’s quite the unrealistic, meddling reach for a school principal to order a student to be a study buddy for another student who just transferred to the school. Alex is friendly, a little nerdy, and he likes a lot of the same entertainment and literature that Darby likes. And you know what that means.

Maybe the “Darby and the Dead” filmmakers didn’t want to use the tired teen-comedy stereotype of making two potential love interests get assigned by a teacher to be study partners, usually in a biology class. However, by having the school principal force this partnership, it just looks even phonier. At any rate, as soon as Alex meets Darby, and she is rude and standoffish to him, you know exactly what’s going to happen between these two characters later in the movie.

While Darby has voiceover rants about how Capri and her friends are horrendous snobs, Darby doesn’t see the irony that she is almost equally unpleasant and snooty to Alex when she rebuffs his attempts to become her friend. “I’m a lone wolf,” Darby curtly tells Alex. The off-putting tone of “Darby and the Dead” is that viewers are supposed to automatically love Darby’s rudeness because she’s the “underdog” of the story. However, Darby is such a terribly written character (she says multiple times she doesn’t like being around people who are still alive), there’s no good reason to root for her for most of the story.

As part of Darby’s “spiritual guidance” counseling sessions, “Darby and the Dead” has some awkward filler of Darby hanging out with two old men (who are both dead) that is embarrassing to everyone in these movie scenes. A better movie would have had more variety in the types of ghosts that Darby helps, but that would involve creative imagination, which “Darby and the Dead” sorely lacks. It actually comes across as a little creepy that these dead old men have gravitated to this underage teen.

Gary (played by Tony Danza) is a dead janitor who used to work at the high school, but he hasn’t passed on to the other side. He’s waiting for his widow to die and join him, so they can cross over to the other side of the spirit world together. There’s a stupid scene of Darby talking to Gary on the school bleachers, and he gives Darby some cash to pass on to his widow. This scene is as bad as it sounds.

Even worse: Gary introduces Darby to his dead friend Mel (played by Wayne Knight), who died of a heart attack but has not crossed over the other side yet. Mel’s wife died 17 years earlier. Mel is concerned that when he dies, his wife will see him in the body that Mel has now: older and with a lot more weight gain, compared to 17 years ago. Darby assures Mel that when he passes on to the next realm to reunite with his dead wife, Mel will be his “optimal self” (whatever that means). So now, viewers know that not only does Darby think she’s the Jeff Bezos of the ghost world, she also thinks she’s a makeover guru for the ghost world.

Capri’s death doesn’t happen until almost halfway through the movie, which takes entirely too long to get to this plot development, considering “Darby and the Dead” is marketed as a movie that’s mostly about what happens after Capri dies. Capri’s death is another badly written, phony-looking scene: In a school locker room, Capri is holding a plugged-in, hairstyling iron after stealing Darby’s clothes in a bullying incident. Capri accidentally falls down in a shallow body of water while holding the iron, she gets electrocuted, and dies.

You already know what’s going to happen next: Capri won’t cross over into the other realm, Darby can see Capri’s ghost, and the two teens spend a lot of time bickering and getting on each other’s nerves. Capri’s “unfinished business” is that she died before she could have her Sweet 17 birthday party extravaganza. Capri makes a deal with Darby: Capri will leave Darby alone if Darby turns the birthday party into a special tribute for Capri, and Capri will teach Darby how to become the most popular girl in school.

What about Capri’s boyfriend James? “Darby and the Dead” has more terribly staged scenarios over this love triangle. And let’s not forget Alex, who is waiting around and hoping that Darby will wake up and see that Alex is a much better match for her. There are absolutely no surprises in “Darby and the Dead,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the movie makes it all so boring and witless.

Downs isn’t horrible in the role of Darby. She’s just been saddled with a horrible script, and she’s just not able to make grumpy Darby all that endearing for most of the movie. There’s only so much whining and pouting that viewers can take from Darby, a teenager who’s actually fairly privileged and is, by her own admission, anti-social by choice.

Cravalho, who’s best known as a singer, might excel in musical roles, such as her voice-starring title role in Disney’s 2016 animated film “Moana.” However, live-action comedy doesn’t appear to be a strong suit for Cravalho, who is too hammy in “Darby and the Dead,” and she needs to work on her comedic timing. Not only is Capri dead for most of the movie, but Capri also has a dead personality. Cravalho tries too hard to be campy in this role, and her performance just doesn’t work well for how this mean-spirited and soulless character is written.

The rest of the cast members are serviceable and don’t do anything special. “Darby and the Dead” fails to impress as a movie that can portray teenagers in ways other than the usual, narrow movie stereotypes. To rephrase the title of a Nirvana song, the teen spirit in “Darby of the Dead” smells like bad filmmaking.

Hulu premiered “Darby and the Dead” on December 2, 2022.

Review: ‘Gaia’ (2021), starring Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk and Anthony Oseyemi

June 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Carel Nel, Monique Rockman and Alex van Dyk in “Gaia” (Photo by Jorrie van der Walt/Decal)

“Gaia” (2021)

Directed by Jaco Bouwer

Some language in Afrikaans with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Cape Town, South Africa, the horror film “Gaia” features a cast of four people: two white people as wilderness dwellers and one Asian and one black person as forest rangers.

Culture Clash: While out patrolling, two forest rangers get separated, and one of them is captured by two wilderness dwellers, who have an obsession with worshipping nature and have to fight off mysterious fungus creatures.

Culture Audience: “Gaia” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching “slow burn” horror films that have not-so-subtle messages about the dangers of disrespecting the environment.

Monique Rockman in “Gaia” (Photo by Jorrie van der Walt/Decal)

“Gaia” is an intentionally creepy environmentalist film that’s dressed up as a horror movie. It’s intriguing enough for viewers who have the patience to tolerate slow-paced moments that dilute thrilling action scenes. “Gaia” (directed by Jaco Bouwer and written by Tertius Kapp) also has a few plot holes that could be explained away, if viewers are willing to believe that two forest rangers who disappear while on the job wouldn’t have a search and rescue team looking for them after a certain period of time.

That’s because there are only four people in this entire movie, which takes place and was filmed in Cape Town, South Africa: forest rangers Gabi (played by Monique Rockman) and Winston (played by Anthony Oseyemi) and wilderness dwellers Barend (played by Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (played by Alex van Dyk), who is in his late teens or early 20s. Gabi and Winston appear to be in their late 20s or early 30s.

In the beginning of the movie, Gabi and Winston are patrolling an unnamed area forest area by canoe. They’re using four drones, with one currently in the air. Gabi notices on her video monitor that a man covered in mud has briefly appeared on camera, and then the drone seems to stop operating. It’s implied that this mystery man has taken the drone.

Gabi immediately wants to go in the forest to find the drone. Winston is nervous and warns her: “People disappear in this forest.” Gabe brushes off Winston’s concerns and says of the people who have supposedly disappeared: “Oh come on, Winston. They were just crusty old hippies. They probably just moved on to their next squat.”

Winston reluctantly lets Gabi go into the forest by herself (nothing was going to stop her anyway) and tells her that she’s got one hour before he’ll come looking for her. Since this is a horror movie, it’s easy to predict what happens next: Gabi encounters danger in the woods. She gets caught in a booby trap that causes a wooden stake to be embedded in her left foot. And it turns out that the mud-covered mystery man is Barend, who set the trap and also destroyed the drone.

Gabi is captured by Barend and Stefan, who take her to their remote cabin in the woods. It’s soon clear that they’re not going to kill her, but they aren’t willing to let her go either. Barend treats Gabi’s foot wound and even lets her try to contact Winston by walkie talkie. However, the first time Gabi uses the walkie talkie to get help, she hears nothing but static.

The rest of the “Gaia” shows that this is no ordinary forest. There are pollen-like particles that float in the air that can cause certain mutations to anyone who inhales these particles. While Gabi’s foot is healing, she finds out that Barend and Stefan (who doesn’t talk much) have been living “off the grid” in this forest for several years.

Barend tells her that he used to be a scientist whose specialty was plant pathology. His wife Lily, who was Stefan’s mother, died 13 years ago and was a chemical engineer. Barend says cryptically, “After Lily died, I met her.”

Barend and Stefan, who are both emaciated, engage in a ritual of covering themselves with mud when they go outside to worship nature. There’s one tree in particular that is the object of their obsession. Is this a tree of life or a tree of death and destruction? The answer is revealed in the movie.

During the course of the movie, viewers find out that Barend has a particular hatred of technology and modern inventions. One day, he sees Gabi showing Stefan her cell phone and photos that are on her phone, which does not get a signal in this dense forest. Barend destroys the cell phone in a rage as he shouts, “Keep your devilish devices away from us!”

It’s implied that Stefan is a virgin who is not used to interacting with women. Gabi uses her feminine charms not with the intention of completely seducing Stefan but to make him easier to manipulate. She also tells Stefan that he could meet a lot of girls if he lived outside the forest, but Stefan doesn’t seem interested. Instead, Stefan tells Gabi that Barend says that everyone in the outside world is doomed to die.

Barend and Stefan haven’t been completely by themselves in this forest. There are menacing fungus creatures that sometimes try to invade their cabin. These mutant creatures have arms and legs and can stand upright like humans. But they are also blind. Their attacks are the most suspenseful scenes in the movie, although some of the action stunts look choppy and could have been better choreographed to look more realistic.

However, there’s another horror in the movie that isn’t as fast-paced. Over time, Gabi notices that shrub-like plant buds are growing out of her arms and then other parts of her body. When she plucks off these buds, she bleeds like someone would bleed from a minor cut. And the fate of Winston is also shown in the movie. What happens to him isn’t much of a surprise.

“Gaia” has some memorably striking visual effects, and the actors give performances that are fairly good at sustaining interest in the story. But don’t expect “Gaia” to have a lot of character development, since very little is revealed about the lives that any of the movie’s characters had outside of the forest. And for a forest ranger, Gabi doesn’t seem to have a lot of basic survival skills.

Rather than offering clear explanations behind the mystery of the forest and the characters in the story, “Gaia” is more concerned with creating moods and letting the story’s message slowly reveal itself, much like that unusual tree in the forest eventually shows its purpose. “Gaia” is not an outstanding horror film, but it’s one that leaves a distinct impression that as powerful as humans think they are, nature can be much more powerful.

Decal released “Gaia” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021, and on digital and VOD on June 25, 2021.

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