Seeing dead people may seem like a curse, but to the teenage protagonist of the gothic, good-humored “Darby and the Dead,” necromancy is a Friday-night side hustle. Directed by Silas Howard, the movie begins by bringing us up to speed: When Darby (Riele Downs) was 7, she survived a drowning accident that accorded her the ability to speak to lingering souls, and she began to act as their envoy to the earthly.
That’s a hell of a lot of narrative table-setting. Yet the movie’s real drama occurs 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. Most loathsome of all is Capri (Auli’i Cravalho), the school’s flawless queen bee who disdains Darby for her stubborn self-sufficiency. But after a tragedy unexpectedly unites the two teens, the social rivals are forced to band together.
Setting aside the sixth sense element, “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. The predictable story arc is spiced up by Darby’s frequent, sassy asides to the camera, reminiscent of the TV series “Fleabag.” (A third-act moment breaking the fourth wall nearly quotes a “Fleabag” scene.)
But as familiar as this tale of female transformation feels, there is an authentic sweetness to Darby and Capri’s fledgling friendship. Their bond resuscitates a movie that might otherwise have been dead on arrival.