Silas Howard’s Darby and the Dead doesn’t break any new ground. However, it still manages to remain a fun teen comedy throughout, mainly due to the lead performances from Riele Downs and Auli’i Cravalho. Downs plays the film’s titular character, who has the ability to talk and connect with the recently deceased, helping them “move on” to the afterlife as they are stuck in purgatory. After Darby’s former best friend/sworn enemy Capri Donahue (Auli’i Cravalho) unexpectedly dies, our main protagonist is now stuck with her enemy haunting her until she kowtows to her demands to still host her sweet seventeenth party in her memory.
Capri will make sure Darby becomes “popular” at school to gain her best friends’ (Nicole Maines, Kylie Liya Paige and Genneya Walton) attention so they would be convinced to host a party. However, James Harris (Asher Angel), Capri’s boyfriend, doesn’t seem entirely convinced that it’s a good idea and believes her girlfriend has been haunting him. By then you probably know where the movie will end up, and it’s fairly conventional. However, as mentioned above, the movie still works.
It works, because Downs and Cravalho have terrific chemistry. The two of them are amazingly fun to watch, especially when Capri starts to “torment” Darby on attempting to become “popular,” and break out of her introverted shell. Those moments are tons of fun, especially scenes where she attempts to hook up with Alex (Chosen Jacobs), but feels resistance from Capri, who wants her to befriend her cheerleading group. The character dynamic between the three cheerleaders and Darby works well. The three are amazingly clueless, and gobble up “electrocution awarness” as a guise to throw a party, as if it is a real charity in the memory of someone who died in a rather silly fashion.
I also enjoyed Darby’s relationship with Alex. While underdeveloped, their chemistry remains fun throughout. Their ironic tone they adopt as they interact with one another is a refreshing change of pace from Capri and Darby consistently going at odds with each other. In trying to pull in some emotional levity, Darby also plays chess with Gary (Tony Danza), a “stayer” who is waiting for his wife to pass away before he moves on from his life, and his friend Mel (Wayne Knight), who is attempting to apologize to his son, as he didn’t accept him for being gay. Both characters bring a great amount of emotional depth to the film, and are well-acted by two legends of the silver screen.
It’s really when Darby and the Dead reaches its final act that it starts to falter. There are so many clichés thrown at the audience it’s almost as if it becomes a totally different film than what was initially stated, even if the plotline itself was conventional. But then it becomes too conventional, and too dull for its own good. Asher Angel’s character does not benefit from its final act, and becomes a walking, talking cliché. You can see every line from his character coming a mile away, and his arc takes a huge nosedive. I won’t reveal exactly what occurs, but there were lots of eyerolls thrown at me as the movie progressed.
Still, Darby and the Dead works, regardless of its clichés and conventional plot. The performances elevate the material, and the dynamic between the characters is interesting enough to have held my attention until the end. And even if the more emotional beats didn’t work as well as it should’ve, it is still an admirable effort, and one of the better Hulu original films of the year.
Darby and the Dead is now available to stream on Hulu.