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Darby and the Dead Review: Riele Downs Gets Let Down by Generic Teen Comedy?

Darby and the Dead is a 2022 American supernatural teen comedy film directed by Silas Howard and written by Wenonah Wilms and Becca Greene, starring Riele Downs as Darby Harper, Aulii Cravalho, Chosen Jacobs, Asher Angel, Wayne Knight, Derek Luke, and Tony Danza.

‘Darby and the Dead’ Review: Sixteen With a Sixth Sense

In this familiar but lighthearted story of adolescent female friendship, a high school junior talks to the dead.

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Seeing dead people may appear to be a curse, but for the teenage protagonist of “Darby and the Dead,” necromancy is a Friday-night side hustle. The film, directed by Silas Howard, begins by setting the scene: Darby (Riele Downs) was 7 years old when she survived a drowning accident that gave her the ability to communicate with lingering souls, and she began to act as their earthly envoy.

That’s a lot of narrative laying the groundwork. The real drama of the film, however, takes place not on the stairway to heaven, but in the terrestrial halls of high school, where Darby wears black clothing and sneers at her cliquey classmates.

Capri (Auli’i Cravalho), the school’s flawless queen bee who scorns Darby for her stubborn self-sufficiency, is the most despised of all. However, when a tragedy unexpectedly brings the two teenagers together, the social rivals are forced to band together.

Darby and the Dead review

Aside from the sixth sense, “Darby and the Dead” borrows liberally from “Mean Girls”; similar to the machinations in that teen classic, Capri gives Darby a makeover that earns her a gratifying degree of popularity, before the power goes to Darby’s head.

Darby’s frequent, sassy asides to the camera, reminiscent of the TV show “Fleabag,” liven up the predictable story arc. (A third-act scene breaking the fourth wall nearly quotes a “Fleabag” scene.)

‘Darby and the Dead’ Review: Riele Downs Gets Let Down by Generic Teen Comedy

The disappointing Darby and the Dead already participate in a two-fold deception in one of its opening lines, delivered by its lead Riele Downs, “I see dead people….everywhere.” The first is that it teases how it will riff on a film like The Sixth Sense by adding an extra bit to the end of the iconic line said by a young Haley Joel Osment more than two decades ago.

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It’s an old joke that the film’s target audience might not even get, especially since it turns out to be just the beginning of the film’s closed loop of references. The second is that the emphasis on “everywhere” implies that the presence of the dead will be an integral part of the experience.

We see this in an opening scene that flashes back to a young Darby Harper (Downs) having a near-death experience and developing her ability to communicate with spirits looking to pass on. Whatever story we skipped through is the one Darby and the Dead should have delved into.

Instead, all of this promise is reduced to serving as a prelude to the rest of the film, which is mostly a standard high school comedy. To even call the film “horror” would be stretching the definition of the word, as any genre elements feel like an afterthought. Aside from a few amusing moments in which the cast manages to inject silliness into a familiar story, the overall result is safe and superficial.

While it goes through the motions of a teen comedy, which is effectively its own subgenre, something more to be found in its supernatural premise, which we only get hints of, ends up going nowhere.

Even though there is some appeal for younger audiences, the teens deserved a more memorable film that could have been a hybrid of Heathers and Beetlejuice.

Darby and the Dead review

This one only wastes the charm and talent of its cast, who are trapped within the confines of a so-so comedy that feels increasingly empty.

For every more clever moment that elicits a well-earned chuckle, there is a slew of meandering set-ups and montages set to music that tries, but fails, to give the experience any sort of entertaining energy.

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