For a movie about a teen who communicates with ghosts, “Darby and the Dead” is awfully dispiriting. Writer Becca Greene (“Good Vibes”) and director Silas Howard (“Dickinson”) casually kill off Darby Harper’s mother in the first minute, spend most of the movie requiring Darby (Riele Downs) to change her entire personality, and then proceed to punish her for following the path they’ve set.
Though the film seems designed to exploit a new generation’s affection for movies like “Clueless,” “Mean Girls,” “Bring it On” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” the filmmakers have missed the messages of those beloved classics altogether. Plus, there’s so much YA streaming content these days that lazily patched-together projects feel, well, extra lazy.
Even Downs, so appealing on Nickelodeon’s “Henry Danger,” can’t fight the forces of this soulless script (which was based on a potentially promising story idea by Wenonah Wilms). As Darby, she’s a sharply observant high school loner who’s happy to hang out with her dad (an underused Derek Luke) and the aforementioned dead folks. Because she briefly drowned along with her mother several years ago, she has the talent to see souls trying to cross to the other side. She’s dedicated her life to helping them, sharing final messages with their loved ones to bring peace to both living and dead.
But once head cheerleader Capri (“Moana” star Auli’i Cravalho, perfectly cast) dies, things get complicated. Capri and Darby were once friends but grew to hate each other long before Capri electrocutes herself with her flat iron. When she realizes Darby can still see her, she’s determined to make the most of it: even if no one else knows she’s there, she wants to stick around long enough to see her own memorial party become viral.
Darby resists, of course; she’s more comfortable playing chess with two friendly ghosts (Tony Danza and Wayne Knight) who have higher-minded motives for remaining on Earth. But Capri is used to getting her way, and a little poltergeisting — in which her public humiliations of Darby are played for laughs — works wonders.
Her plan is to make Darby popular enough to convince Capri’s friends to throw the big bash. This includes a “full head-to-toe glow up,” in which Darby swaps her jeans and t-shirts for mini-skirts and makeup. She also becomes a cheerleader, ups her selfie game, blows off her unpopular crush (Chosen Jacobs, “It”) and earns eggplant emojis from creepy guys who’d previously ignored her. (Her nonchalant response is that “any press is good press,” which may tell you all you need to know about the movie’s mindset.) Soon she’s stalking the halls like an unholy Heather, and dismissing the dead with impatient annoyance.
Eventually, though, Darby learns that there is no value in chasing trends, that she has the right to find her own passions and choose how to spend her time, and that remaking oneself for popularity is a dangerous game to play.
She actually winds up feeling lousy about who she once was, with a third-act epiphany in which she assesses her former self as “just an insecure hater,” “closed-minded” and “a freak show,” in contrast to the “special” Capri. With everyone criticizing her old introversion and praising her new style and personality, it’s no surprise she keeps the Capri-designed friends, focus, and fashion.
This is not a great look for a modern movie aimed at girls, even one with production standards that call to mind a tween sitcom pilot. Indeed, there is little worse than a script built on contempt for its own characters. So the filmmakers compensate by throwing in the kinds of contemporary catchwords only grownups would write for kids to say. (“I’d rather spend my time with the unliving than the unwoke,” Darby declares before the plot gaslights her into selling herself out.)
There’s also some halfhearted, brief backpedaling at the very end. “Social media makes us feel insecure about the way we look, for the sole purpose of selling us stuff we don’t need,” Darby lectures her dad, when he gives her the selfie light kit she’s requested. The very same, unfortunately, could be said for her movie. Both Darby and Downs deserve better. Their audience does, too.
“Darby and the Dead” premieres on Hulu Dec. 2.