When she was a young girl, a near-death experience gave high schooler Darby Harper (Riele Downs) the ability to see and communicate with the dead — or “deados,” as she calls them. Since then, Darby has become a lone wolf, turning her back on the living world to focus on her side hustle of counselling spirits. She helps them with their unfinished business so they can cross over instead of getting stuck in a world that no longer sees them. As it turns out, Darby is stuck in a world that no longer sees her. “Lonely in life, popular in death,” she says. But that all changes when Queen Bee Capri (Auli’i Cravalho) dies in a freak hair-straightening accident, resulting in the cancellation of her Sweet 17. From the other side, Capri convinces Darby to help her with her unfinished business: getting her friends to throw her Sweet 17 party.
Darby and the Dead is coated in the fun and chaotic energy reminiscent of iconic teen films from the 90s and 2000s, such as Jawbreaker, Clueless, and Mean Girls. The film shows us what it’s like to be a modern teenager in the Gen Z era as Capri teaches Darby how to be popular so she can befriend Capri’s friends (Nicole Maines, Genneya Walton, and Kylie Liya Page). This includes how to succeed on Instagram with the proper styling, camera angles, and emoji etiquette. She even hints at TikTok and Facetune, to Darby’s dismay. There are also plenty of familiar tropes, including Darby breaking the fourth wall to share backstory and thoughts throughout. The soundtrack successfully blends old and new hits, including Hey Baby by No Doubt, Cannonball by The Breeders, and Boss Bitch by Doja Cat. Plus, where would this film be without a scene where Darby, flawlessly dressed and with a killer attitude, walks down the hallway in slow motion with her new popular clique to Boys Wanna Be Her by Peaches?
The main characters are reflective of Gen Z culture in different ways. Despite Capri’s popularity, she feels isolated and struggles with the pressures of being perfect. She is a very opinionated cheerleader, even when she doesn’t have to be. Darby lacks confidence and tends to keep to herself, but she isn’t afraid to make digs back at Capri in class. Darby sees Capri as self-centred and superficial. When James (Asher Angel), Capri’s boyfriend, says she was the most kind, selfless person he’d ever met, Darby finds it hard to believe. Capri tells Darby she’s the judgmental one who acts like everyone is below her all the time. Darby’s reinvention journey transforms her as it pushes her outside of her comfort zone and challenges her close-mindedness.
It’s entertaining as hell to see Cravalho play a stereotypical mean girl who eventually softens, and she excels in it. Cravalho will go far in her career as she continues getting varied roles. Downs, best known for portraying Charlotte Page in the Nickelodeon series Henry Danger, gives a strong performance as the cynical Darby, who has a lot on her plate. It’s fun to watch the pair make jibes at one another but also to watch them grow closer and understand each other more.
Darby and the Dead boasts a diverse cast, but it isn’t as strong as the predecessors it’s trying to emulate; however, it remains a strong entry into Gen Z’s teen genre. The film tries to juggle too many characters, including new kid Alex (Chosen Jacobs), a love interest who doesn’t get the screen time he deserves. His arc is understandable, but it still feels like a loss.
While Darby’s fourth wall breaks may serve as someone for her to talk to since she lacks a traditional BFF, they feel unnecessary or, at the very least, excessive. Unfortunately, the film suffers from the fatigue of being overwhelmingly familiar. It’s impossible not to enjoy every variation of the “I built you, I can just as easily tear you down” line, but it needs more. The ability to see the dead is almost enough, and it might’ve been enough if the film balanced its structure more aptly and finished with a tighter cut. The film’s 1h40m runtime is often felt.
Darby and the Dead excels in exploring the complexities beneath the stereotypes and in its comments on grief, something that happens to us all at some point in our lifetime, and the importance of not going through it alone. It also highlights what’s important in life and what isn’t.
Darby and the Dead premieres on Hulu in the US and Disney+ in the UK on 2nd December.
by Toni Stanger