What happens if you combine Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Mean Girls, and add a splash of Ghost Whisperer? Well, you get Darby and the Dead. The story of Darby Harper (Riele Downs), a young teenage girl who has the ability to see the dead. After a tragic accident sees the most popular girl in school pass away (Auli’i Cravalho), Darby is forced with an unlikely tag-along as she tries to make sure her frenemy manages to pass on but gets more than she initially bargained for.
The main concept is a fun idea to give the usual high school storylines an additional layer beyond the usual drama, but the film by Silas Howard is quite keen on trying to throw in as many ideas as possible. In addition to the “wacky” element of Darby seeing the dead, we also have her actively breaking the fourth wall throughout the story. It seems to imply we are also part of her gift, but it can sometimes be more distracting than anything else. Yet, it does also add some levity of social commentary regarding popular culture in high school. It only suffers from trying a bit too hard to replicate Ferris Bueller.
That very element does have the advantage of living off of Downs‘ performance throughout the film. She’s definitely a highlight and even with a more clichéd direction at times, she still finds a way to balance her character’s development of not falling too much into Means Girls territory. It’s simply a shame that the story still relies mostly on familiar territory rather than taking it into a new direction with a premise of someone able to speak to the dead. Instead of exploring Cravalho‘s Capri from that perspective, we mostly follow the outcast to popular girl storyline throughout.
One thing you can’t deny though is that the film has heart. It’s cheeky self-awareness be more a way to make use of the story’s trappings and build upon its characters. Darby is the main focus and the story doesn’t shy away from showing her as a flawed but well-meaning person. The story manages to find that balance that doesn’t turn it into a cautionary tale of popularity, but rather just showcasing that trying out new things is okay. Even with some of the usual story beats at play, the focus of this story and Darby’s development makes up for it in many ways. In times of resisting change, there’s something sweet of a story simply saying you don’t have to be popular but you shouldn’t close yourself off from the living either.
These are elements that work quite in favor of the film’s way of riffing on the material. While it does follow similar plot beats, we get a twist on one of the usual romance storylines and another that is hinted at but never truly followed through with. So, it manages to avoid one cliché by simply being busy with other plot elements throughout its runtime. In turn, this works in favor of creating more believable reactions rather than something that feels like a forced plotline. Capri similar is able to avoid some aspects of the popular girl trope by simply being in a position that won’t let her fully fulfill that role. So, there are elements where its base premise works in favor of not completely falling into what you’d expect form this type of story.
Even saying that, there’s still a lot of heart. Howard‘s direction adds some visually interesting shots and the way it handles her supernatural elements does make for some interesting set pieces. Even with some of my complaints, there’s still a self-awareness to the story that makes great use to it, especially when it comes to how Capri ends up passing away. It’s a light-hearted adventure that knows its mostly following in cliché territory. So, it makes great use of those story elements even if it’s not reinventing the wheel per say.
Darby and the Dead is an enjoyable ride, but could’ve used a bit more dead and less high school. There’s an earnest attempt at using a clichéd storyline by adding a message that’s more realistic. While it didn’t always hit the mark, it’s central messaging is definitely worth praising. It’s okay to change and let go of the past while also still looking at it with fond memories. Letting go is part of the process and sometimes it’s the hardest thing to do, especially when you yourself have to embrace change.