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girl breaking 4th wall - Darby and the Dead

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Emily Tsiao

Movie Review

Darby Harper knows a thing or two about death.

When she was a little girl, she and her mom both died on the same day. Darby was revived by some first responders. But unfortunately, her mom didn’t make it.

Understandably, Darby’s life was never the same after that. She had to go on without her mom. She quit cheerleading (her mom’s favorite activity), stopped hanging out with her friends and started hanging out with … ghosts.

See, after Darby’s near-death experience, she realized she had a connection to the realm between this world and the next. Ghosts started popping up everywhere.

These ghosts aren’t scary, they just have unfinished business. Most simply want to send one last message to their loved ones before passing on. And Darby helps them do it.

At first, Darby held on to the hope that she’d find her own mom among the unliving. But soon, Darby realized she genuinely loves making people’s lives better—even if those lives are technically at an end.

So when the most popular girl at Darby’s school (and Darby’s own personal bully), Capri, dies in a freak hair straightener accident—

Huh?

—Darby must find a way to help the mean girl find closure and “cross over.”

Because while Capri may have tormented Darby in life, she’s downright haunting in death.

Positive Elements

As noted, Darby’s desire to help families wrestling with grief is an admirable one. Her dad is incredibly supportive. He encourages his daughter to be more social and make friends, but he also gives her the space to be herself.

Capri’s boyfriend, James, is truly saddened by her passing. He prevents people from using her death for their gain. And Darby uses her experience with grief to help James process his own. (Although it’s implied Capri only started dating James to boost her social standing, it seems she genuinely cared for him, too.)

Darby is sympathetic to Capri in death. And she helps the mean girl to realize that the quantity of her friends and followers isn’t nearly as meaningful as the quality. Capri helps Darby, too, teaching her that she can be happy and have living friends without dishonoring her mom. And both girls learn that it’s more important to be yourself than to be what someone else expects you to be.

Spiritual Elements

Darby helps families gain closure by passing on messages from the deceased to their loved ones. We learn that one ghost, Gary, has chosen to remain in order to take care of his wife until she dies as well.

Darby explains that ghosts are a form of energy that can affect things in the real world. Ghosts use their abilities to make lights flicker and move people and objects.

When ghosts cross over to the land of the dead, they disappear in sparkly dust. Someone mentions astrology. Darby burns sage to cleanse an area. Someone says Darby is a witch. Capri’s boyfriend attempts to communicate with her through a Ouija board. Capri talks about reincarnation.

Obviously, from end to end, the spiritual worldview of Darby and the Dead is at odds with a Christian understanding of the spiritual world as revealed in both the Old and New Testaments.

Sexual Content

A teen couple kisses. Capri says a treehouse was a “makeout” spot.

Capri teaches Darby how different emoticons reference different parts of male and female anatomy. Later, we hear and see these images being used to objectify Darby and to reference sex. A girl swats her own rear end.

A teen girl talks about her recent breast enhancement surgery. Teen girls wear revealing outfits (and we see a few wrapped in towels in a locker room). A boy streaks in his underwear at a party. Capri convinces Darby to dress like these other teens in order to fit in better.

Several students at Darby’s school are LGBT. (And one of Capri’s transgender friends is portrayed by a transgender actor.) A ghost asks Darby to tell his son that he’s sorry for not accepting his homosexual lifestyle while he was alive.

Darby references a ghost who claimed to be a famous artist’s “lover.” Another ghost worries that his wife (who passed away 17 years prior) won’t be attracted to him anymore.

Violent Content

We see flashes of the accident that caused Darby and her mom to drown. (Darby is resuscitated through CPR.)

Capri slips and falls into a puddle of water. And while we don’t see her death on screen, we hear the electrocution after she accidentally drops her hair straightener in the puddle. (Later, people spread rumors about the details of her death.)

A cheerleader is dropped during a stunt when someone forgets to catch her. A girl uses her fingers to pantomime shooting herself. A student promises to report a school-sanctioned frog dissection to PETA. Someone references the film Carrie (where pig blood was dumped on a girl as a prank).

As a ghost, Capri uses her “pure unfiltered teenage rage” to break several objects. She throws Darby around and tries to give her a swirly in a toilet. And she uses her powers to hit a girl in the back of a head with a dissection frog and another girl with a notebook. (And after she learns her mom turned her bedroom into a yoga studio, she sets it on fire.)

We hear a man had a heart attack and died. We learn a boy was in a car accident that resulted in a coma.

Crude or Profane Language

There are 16 uses of the s-word, as well as several uses of “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–mit,” “d–n” and “h—.” We hear a few uses of “slut,” “tit” and “whore.” There is a near-use of the f-word, too.

God’s name is abused nearly 30 times (once paired with “d–mit”), and Christ’s name is abused once.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Someone obtains kegs for a party, and we later see teenagers drinking heavily. We hear about other incidents of underage drinking. Someone pats down Darby to make sure she isn’t a “narc.” People wrongly assume that alcohol was laced with methamphetamines.

Other Negative Elements

Darby can be extremely judgmental of her peers. She calls them “unwoke” and criticizes their need to be validated. (And this proves to be hypocritical since she acts just like them while trying to fulfill Capri’s last wishes.) Teens can be rude and cruel, often calling each other nasty names. A teacher accidentally insults Darby and another student.

After she passes away, Capri’s friends use her death to gain followers on social media. (And Capri, as a ghost, is annoyed when she learns her boyfriend is grieving privately since it won’t build drama.) Some people who never even met Capri pretend to have been her friends after she dies to boost their social status.

Many students at Darby’s school act entitled and manipulate their parents into giving them what they want. (A girl says her birthday party cost more than her sister’s wedding). Several teens encourage Darby to break her dad’s rules.

Capri embarrasses James by claiming he has dyslexia in a ruse to manipulate their teacher into letting them be lab partners. She purposely blocks the view of a classmate to make a point. And when someone tries to call her out for her behavior, she claims they are gaslighting her.

We hear a teen girl talk about altering her appearance via surgery. Darby is told not to hang out with someone because it would be “social suicide.” A yearbook quote says, “Lonely in life. Popular in death.” Capri is impressed that Darby is a “natural liar.”

Many of the “rules” about being popular (and attaining validation) are superficial and involve lying to others (and yourself). We hear that a girl’s mom told her she wasn’t smart and would only get by on her looks. Teenagers spread many vicious rumors about each other.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for a movie that comments on the negative obsession teens have with their social media standing and desperately seeking the validation of their peers, Darby and the Dead certainly accomplishes that.

The movie sends the message that it’s more important to be true to yourself than to fulfill someone else’s expectations of who you should be. And it emphasizes the importance of quality friendships over quantity of followers.

But sadly, that’s where any positive messages end.

Darby’s desire to help ghosts complete their “unfinished business” and move on is admirable in the abstract. But first, you have to get past the fact that she can see and talk to ghosts in the first place—a perspective on spiritual truth that deviates wildly from a Christian understanding of what happens after death.

Then there’s the foul behaviors of teenagers. They curse up a storm, make crude references to sex (and there are several LGBT students who attend Darby and Capri’s school), dress immodestly and throw keggers with zero adult supervision. And the adults in their lives allow them to get away with it. Real consequences for rebellious behavior are few and far between here.

Ironically, the film’s lone positive message—that you don’t need social media for validation—could also be applied to this movie’s ostensible argument for existence: You don’t need Darby and the Dead to talk to your kids about their possible fixation with social media and seeking unhealthy validation there.

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Emily Tsiao

Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and geeking out with her husband indulging in their “nerdoms,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything they love, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate and Lord of the Rings.