Darby And The Dead Review: A Tender, & Lively Teen Bop Makes Grieving Less Taboo

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After my dad died, echoes of his raspy breathing haunted me for days. I knew he was gone, but my mind couldn’t accept his absence. In dreams, he’d visit me, and I’d awake convinced he was alive. I kept asking an impossible question: would it be sadder to learn that ghosts exist or to learn they didn’t? Do we want departed loved ones to surround us forever? Or is eternal rest kinder? Director Silas Howard’s “Darby and the Dead” tenderly tackles this topic through a teen horror comedy lens without veering into the saccharine or pandering territory. Few filmmakers have crafted a film about grieving with as much delight, empathy, and candor.

When someone you love dies, people always ask if you want to talk about it, a well-meaning request, but nevertheless frustrating. Grief is a wily combination of confusion, rage, sorrow, guilt, relief, and longing — one hell of a cocktail to describe to others, which can make the experience isolating. In “Darby and the Dead,” the titular character (Riele Downs) best represents how alienating this feels. Darby is still processing her mother’s (Kim Syster) death as it also gifted her with psychic abilities. Darby avoids humans altogether to hang out with dead people and help them find peace. Screenwriter Becca Greene nails Darby’s teenage angst with a “Veronica Mars”-like vibes that never loses sight of how complicated the grieving process is. Being able to speak to the dead makes Darby a self-proclaimed “freak,” which cleverly mirrors how weird it feels to grieve in the company of those who aren’t.

Feels Like A Forgotten Teen Comedy From The ’00s…

The horror in “Darby and the Dead” isn’t direct — no angry spirits or possession here — because its central conceit is harrowing enough: people we love will die, and it will forever change us. Due to that, expect more whimsy and situational comedy than jump-scares. Even the film’s first death scene feels more like slapstick cathartic justice than shocking. The special effects at play are more glittery (literally) and bubbly and feel inspired by ’90s-era “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” Still, to craft a film that hinges on finding hope and a new sense of self after loss needs that lightness as the topic itself is heavy enough.

When Darby crosses paths with frenemy Capri’s (Auli’i Cravalho) ghost, the story finds its footing. Since the two are such opposites, the friendship-focused story opens itself up to exploring the different ways people find healing or motivation through grief. Darby avoids mentioning her mom at all costs whereas Capri copes with dying by having a “Sweet 17” memorial party thrown for her. Once Darby agrees to help Capri, it’s incredibly fun to watch Downs and Cravalho’s chemistry. Fans of movies like “Legally Blonde” and “Bring It On” will be delighted to see the two bond over mishaps, cheer routines, and makeover montages. In some ways, the film feels like a forgotten teen bop from ’00s with all the problematic bits (lack of inclusion, dumb gay jokes) cut out. Dialogue-wise, it feels slightly out of touch with Gen Z slang and social media use. (Surprisingly, no one uses TikTok!) But there’s a hysterical one-liner from Piper (Nicole Maines) about being trans that feels timely and is funny enough for viewers to handwave some tonal missteps and generational disconnects.

A Hopeful Ending That Might Go Underrated

The best part about “Darby and the Dead” is its ending. The beauty of “The Babadook,” another film explicitly about mourning, is how it states that grief never goes away. We just learn how to live with it, day by day. “Darby and the Dead” takes a similar approach but ends on a hopeful note that will likely go underrated. Yes, in the end, Darby receives everything she craved — but closure is not one of those things. Howard’s work rebuffs the idea that someone will eventually stop missing someone. Instead, he crafts a film that asks us to celebrate the preciousness and shortness of life. While how we grieve changes, we must never forget to return to who is here now because they won’t always be. For those we’ve lost, there are joys to be found, in time, in past memories.

Ghosts are definitely in this film but they’re never as important as Darby’s journey. While its premise is fairly run-of-the-mill for a teen flick, its underlying messaging and approach to a taboo subject matter elevates the material into a uniquely moving film fit for ages pre-teen and up. “Darby and the Dead” feels made by people who have gone through a hard loss: It’s a love letter to those grieving, reminding us not to forget to celebrate life too. 

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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