January 2, 2023
by Carla Hay
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.
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.