This weekend, instead of rewatching New Girl for the hundredth time while scrolling through TikTok, I humbly suggest you cue up Darby and the Dead, a new movie coming to Hulu tomorrow (December 2). In all the Oscar-race and Christmas movie madness, this little supernatural teen comedy is in danger of slipping through the cracks. But I’m here to report that Darby in the Dead is excellent, and you don’t want to miss it.
Directed by Silas Howard, with a screenplay by Wenonah Wilms and Becca Greene, this whip-smart teen comedy is on par with critical successes like Booksmart and Mean Girls, the latter of which is clearly a major influence. But as the title suggests, Darby and the Dead adds a supernatural twist to the horrors of high school girl drama: the protagonist Darby Harper (played by Riele Downs with witty aplomb) sees dead people. Or “deados,” as she calls them.
You see, as a child, Darby nearly drowned. Her mom died that day, but Darby came back to life, with a newfound ability to speak to ghosts. Borrowing from The Sixth Sense, Darby uses her powers to help the dead with any unfinished business so they can “move on” to the other side. Usually, that involves passing on a message to surviving loved ones. But when the most popular cheerleader in school Capri (Auli’i Cravalho) dies in an unfortunate hair-straightener-electrocution-incident, all she wants is for Darby to help her un-cancel her 17th birthday party. It was going to be the party of the year, and Capri doesn’t want a little thing like her death to mess that up. And just to complicate matters further, Darby and Capri used to be BFFs. You know, back before Darby’s mom died and she started wearing all black and talking to ghosts and stuff.
The genius of Darby and the Dead lies in the script’s apparent simplicity. The high-concept set-up easily could have fallen victim to convoluted, unnecessary plotting; instead, every decision just makes sense. Of course Capri died via hair straightener—she’s vain AF! Of course she now has extra-strong ghost electricity powers—she died via electrocution! It’s the kind of “no duh” writing that any writer knows is actually both complicated and hard to achieve, but makes for a smooth and easy viewing experience.
It helps that the cast is fantastic. Auli’i Cravalho, in particular, shines as the Gen-Z version of Regina George. Many still know Cravalho as the sweet-faced Disney princess behind the voice of Moana, so to see her slay as the shallow, popular mean girl is delightful. She’s a natural comedic actor with an acute sense of timing. I laughed out loud when Darby confessed to Capri that was hard growing up speaking to dead people, and Cravalho responded, no hesitation, “Ok and? We’ve all got baggage!”
I’d be remiss not to mention that Darby and the Dead, while not perfect, makes a concerted effort to make its city public school student body actually look like a city public school student body, with a Black protagonist, Black love interest, and Black background actors. Mean Girls, for all its cultural relevance to this day, is painfully outdated. (Remember “unfriendly Black hotties?”) This teen movie formula was due for an upgrade, and Darby and the Dead delivered in spades. You don’t want to sleep on this one.