Review by Sean Boelman
It doesn’t take much for a teen comedy to work — a charming lead, some witty dialogue, and characters that feel genuinely relatable. Unfortunately for Darby of the Dead, the film lacks two out of three of those qualities, letting down its potentially great lead in an almost embarrassing way.
The movie follows a high school outcast who has the ability to communicate with the spirits of the deceased, as she meets her match when the school’s most popular girl dies in a tragic accident. It’s an intriguing premise that, at minimum, should have made for something cute, but the script is so full of cliches that it’s difficult to enjoy.
The film’s painfully obvious metaphor becomes clear in the second act, as the protagonist gives up her invisible life and her foil has to learn to cope with not being seen by anyone else. The movie clearly thinks that it's a refreshing, innovative take on the teen comedy, but it’s simply derivative of much better films that have come before.
As one would expect, much of the humor in the movie is the typical fish-out-of-water material that we see in the genre time and time again. We are supposed to laugh at the fact that this “dorky” girl is doing things typically reserved for the popular girls, like cheerleading and dating, and showing them up. And honestly — it’s more frequently cringe-worthy than it is funny.
It’s hard not to feel bad for Riele Downs, who is clearly a talented actress, but the role gives her absolutely nothing to do. This could have been a star-making turn for her, yet the movie and character are so insufferable that her career could be over before it even really begins. It’s a shame because she shows true potential.
In terms of the more established names in the cast, only Auli’i Carvalho (Moana) isn’t wasted. Although she’s playing a generic mean girl, she’s at least moderately fun to watch in the role. On the other hand, screen legends Wayne Knight and Tony Danza show up for small bit parts and are completely insignificant in the film.
One would hope that the movie would have leaned into the horror-esque aspects of the premise, but it’s shot like a generic comedy. There’s nothing particularly ghostly about the spirits the protagonist interacts with, and even as little as a bit of makeup and costuming work could have given the film more of a personality.
Darby and the Dead is, unfortunately, one of the worst teen comedies in recent memory. So insultingly cliche-ridden that it feels like it was made by an algorithm rather than actual people, the movie seems unlikely to appease even the teenage audience it was designed to appease.
Darby and the Dead streams on Hulu beginning December 2.