Movie Review: Nagged into Cheerleading by the Uneasy Deceased — “Darby and the Dead”

There is no reason — none — why the rest of Hollywood should cede the Teen Rom Com genre to the hormonal hits factory at Netflix.

So why not a teen rom-com built around “I see dead people?” And why not on Hulu?

“Darby and the Dead” has that Major Studio sheen and tiny hint of edge — a Mean Girl dies, on camera, and the script features the odd s-bomb and “molly” joke.

It’s got a winsome starlet (Riele Downs, a voice acting star of “Henry Danger”) paired-up with a proper Mean Girl (Auli’i Cravalho of “All Together Now”), that Sneakerella” lad (Chosen Jacobs) as a love interest, and a couple of “names” in the adult supporting cast (Derek Luke, Tony Danza and Wayne Knight).

It doesn’t quite come off. But when you’re trying to channel “Ghost Town” and not “Ghost,” finding enough laughs and striking the right tone was always going to be tricky.

The kids are alright. It’s mainly screenwriter Becca Green — quite green, this is her first produced script — and director Silas Howard (“A Kid Like Jake,” “Transparent”) who can’t quite get us there.

Downs is our droll, narrating-to-the-camera heroine, the 17 year-old her her classmates nickname “Freak Show” because she keeps to herself and often talks to herself.

Well, not really. It seems that after “My mom and I died on the same day” in a swimming accident — with Darby the only one revived — the kid’s been able to see and communicate with the dead, those who haven’t “passed on,” the ones with unresolved issues. That’s who she’s talking to when she’s chatting by herself on the bleachers.

She’s taken up “counseling local spirits” on “the purgatory circuit,” passing on messages, etc., to the living left behind by the folks she calls “dead-o’s.”

All that exposition is handled in the opening credits of the film, which gives the picture a promising start. Yes, it’s Ricky Gervais’ “Ghost Town.” No sense mucking about with “origin story” nonsense.

It’s when that head cheerleader “named after pants,” Capri (Cravalho) starts feuding with her that the perpetual outsider finds herself forced inside. Capri dies in a locker room accident and proceeds to haunt Darby until she agrees to manipulate Capri’s cheer squad posse into throwing a “Coachella inspired sweet 17 party” for the cheerleaderly departed that Capri died too soon to enjoy.

The movie is about Darby having to reach out to people she loathes but doesn’t know, reaching beyond herself to become a cheerleader like dead Capri and Darby’s dead mom. The “learning” comes from getting drunk on the status that comes from being popular, neglecting the “dead-o’s” who have come to depend on her (Danza and Knight) and brushing off the cute nerdy new boy (Jacobs) who becomes the “Fighting Donuts” mascot at Frederick Douglas High.

A lot of tried and true elements of the genre are trotted out in this script, and promptly neglected or botched. Capri’s bullying includes instructions on How to Be Popular, which the script tosses at the screen in slangy graphics but fails to make cute and funny.

“Don’t brag. Always ‘humblebrag.’” “Be woke. Don’t be a ‘woke fisher.'” “DON’T be thirsty!”

The warm and fuzzy stuff, playing chess with dead pal Gary (Danza), mourning Mom with Dad (Derek Luke) isn’t warm and fuzzy.

Scenes with Capri moving objects — and Darby — with her psychic energy aren’t remotely as funny as you’d hope. I mean, how can you blow the frog-manipulation and flog-flinging gag on dissecting day in biology class?

Greene gets the high school tropes right, and makes the banter flip and funny at times and the universal truths universal.

“Being popular is an illusion…like a magic trick, or cryptocurrency.”

Not every plot element fits, not every bit of casting pays off. But the germ of the idea isn’t awful and the attempt is worth the effort. A director with proven teen comedy chops might’ve made this work. Howard displays no feel for this material. At all.

As it is, we’re looking at the outline for a funny teen rom-com, not one that feels finished or that pays off.

Rating: PG-13 (Some Language|Suggestive Material|Some Teen Partying)

Cast: Riele Downs, Auli’i Cravalho, Chosen Jacobs, Asher Angel, Derek Luke, Wayne Knight and Tony Danza

Credits: Directed by Silas Howard, scripted by Becca Greene. A 20th Century film streaming on Hulu.

Running time: 1:40

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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