What’s a teen to do when she witnesses her bully electrocute herself with a hair straightener in the high school locker room? If she’s a medium who sees dead people, she’ll have to infiltrate the popular girls and throw a birthday bash of her dreams so her new frenemy can move on to afterlife, obviously. That’s the tenuous and cliche-ridden premise of “Darby and yhe Dead,” 20th Century Studios’ generic teen comedy arriving on Hulu just in time for the holidays. Starring “Moana” voice star Auli’i Cravalho as a bubbly sharp-tongued bully, “Darby and the Dead” mashes up a host of YA movie tropes into a snappy but ultimately forgettable ride.
The story follows sixteen-year-old Darby Harper (Riele Downs), a self-professed weirdo and outcast whose expository introduction illustrates how surviving a near-drowning in childhood left her able to communicate with dead people. After losing her mother in that same accident, she spends most of her time with her nice widower dad (Derek Luke) and an endless supply of friendly ghosts, whom she affectionately calls “Deados.” Fashioning herself as a kind of metaphysical social worker, Darby holds open office hours on Friday nights, where she attends to the unfinished business of these lingering souls, helping them find peace so they can eventually move on.
Styled in black to indicate her outsider status, she keeps to herself at school, where her former childhood friend is the queen bee of the popular cheerleaders. Capri (Cravalho) rules over a clique with an iron fist — until the day she dies suddenly, right before their very eyes. It’s poetic justice, really, because while Capri is busy picking on Darby in the locker room, she’s far too busy to notice a puddle of water, which she causes her to a) slip, b) trip, and c) fall into, all while holding a hair straightener. Oopsie! Naturally, it’s only a matter of time before she’s buzzing in Darby’s ear with her demands.
Holding on for dear life to her former it-girl status, Capri becomes obsessed with making sure the epic birthday bash for her self-styled “Sweet 17” moves forward as planned. In an impressive amalgam of teen movie premises, she decides the only way to achieve this is to turn Darby into a popular girl, so that she may better influence the friends to do her bidding and go ahead with the party. Cue makeover montage, lessons in teen girl aloofness, and strict adherence to high school’s social hierarchy.
You can probably guess what happens next.
Darby ends up enjoying her newfound popularity more than she expected, though she still feels like the same lovable weirdo inside. In her ascent to Queen Bee status, she ends up forgetting about her old friends, including the cute but nerdy new kid (Chosen Jacobs) and her longtime ghost friend Gary, AKA Tony Danza. In Darby parlance, Gary is a “Stayer,” a Deado who has chosen not to move on, in his case because he’s waiting for his wife to die so they can cross over together.
In an absurdly random feat of casting, Gary is gifted a sidekick in Mel, played by Wayne Knight (AKA “Seinfeld” star Newman), who’s nervous his already dead wife won’t recognize him because he’s either lost or gained weight, it’s unclear. Though these two comic actors aren’t given much to do together, it’s a bit of fun for any parents who may be listening from the other room.
Clearly having her own fun with the role, Cravalho energizes the humdrum proceedings with her scorned teenage diva routine, wreaking havoc with her newfound ghost powers when she goes full-on angry spirit during the third act. She’s barreling through the transition from voice of a Disney Princess to onscreen talent: In addition to “Darby,” she’s starred in two other YA movies in the last two years, the queer rom-com “Crush” and the uplifting drama “All Together Now,” each role distinct enough to prove her versatility and charisma. With the blindly self-involved Capri, she adds light villain to her character roster, though she still shines most as a lovable ingenue.
Despite the snappy premise of “Darby and the Dead,” Becca Greene’s script fails to deliver any compelling characters beyond the usual template of YA movie cutouts. Darby’s sly asides, delivered knowingly to the camera, provide ample opportunity for snark, but the quips fall flat. Director Silas Howard peps things up with some fun soundtrack choices, including songs by Le Tigre and Lizzo, which do a lot of heavy lifting to cast a veneer of pop sensibility over the generic setting and story.
But with every streamer competing to woo young eyeballs away from TikTok, “Darby and the Dead” is light as a feather, stiff as a board.
“Darby and the Dead” is now streaming on Hulu.