Things are tough for teenager Zoey Slade (YouTube sensation Tiffany Alvord). Along with grieving for a dead mother she struggles adjusting to a new life in a small town, attending a high school where kids and teachers alike prove less than hospitable. Meanwhile her Dad (Mark Bloom) seems too busy to help. One day Zoey sees fellow students Tara (Piper Curda) and Morgan (Teala Dunn) consorting with actual ghosts on campus. Turns out the two self-styled paranormal investigators are using their limited supernatural knowledge to help these spirits pass on to the 'Other Side.' Despite a suspicious Morgan insisting she keep away, brainy Zoey tries to use her science skills to help the girls accomplish their paranormal mission. Only to find a powerful and malevolent new spirit named Canaldi (Alysia Reiner) is abducting school kids for her own evil purposes.
Pitched squarely at the tween market School Spirits is a slight though good-natured ghost comedy adventure in the established tradition of children's TV shows Goosebumps or Are You Afraid of the Dark? Indeed the plot's third act shift into haunted carnival territory echoes the central conceit of R.L. Stine's Monsterville: The Cabinet of Souls (2015). Laden with overworked high school movie clichés (the passive-aggressive brunette social misfit heroine, the bitchy blonde popularity-obsessed cheerleader, the nerdy next door neighbour with a hopeless crush, etc.) the script is redeemed by the odd moment of genuine wit that stands out amidst a wave of generally twee gags.
While the pop soundtrack and overly bright visuals are at odds with its attempts to weave a spooky atmosphere, School Spirits is actually quite artfully directed, striking a tone midway between a Wes Anderson film and a Nickelodeon show. Director Alison Eckhert exhibits an eye for eerie imagery in scenes like Zoey's first glimpse of swimming pool ghost, Tara and Morgan's surprisingly intense attempt to exorcise the Widow Wellsley and a dream sequence where Tara envisions a missing boy trapped inside Canaldi's sinister carnival realm that is almost Lynchian. These moments are worth savouring yet few and far between in a film otherwise characterized by plot inconsistencies and missed opportunities. Early on the film establishes that Tara and Morgan are friendly with various nice ghosts like Ned (Steve Monroe), the spirit of a music teacher who passed away in the Sixties. Yet aside from briefly consoling a forlorn Zoey, Ned's presence never really factors into the plot. Similarly the film notes that Zoey's geeky neighbour Link (Philip Labes) (whose attempt to kiss her mere seconds after they have met is creepier than any of the ghosts) has cystic fibrosis but does nothing with that detail either.
Along with fumbling the seemingly key revelation of Tara's psychic powers (which ought to but do not play any notable role in the final confrontation) the film takes unnecessary short cuts charting the three heroine's evolving relationship. Mouthy Morgan adopts an abrasive attitude towards Zoey because she seemingly resents the new girl intruding on her friendship with Tara. Yet when Morgan goes too far by dismissing Zoey's grief as mere "mommy issues" the film inexplicably excuses what is clearly a transgressive moment. There is no scene where Morgan apologizes nor even expresses any remorse for her hurtful comment. Yet by the end everyone is all smiles, fine and dandy. It is hard to discern whether such inconsistencies stem from the script or post-production curtailing character arcs. One is inclined to suspect the latter given how screenwriters Caitlyn Kleppinger and Christine Kleppinger exhibit an otherwise solid grasp of teen girl angst. For all the ghostly shenanigans School Spirits is really about a teenage girl learning to rely on her own ingenuity and resourcefulness in order to find her place in an uncertain world. That theme just about shines through even while mediocre visual effects let down some of the film's other ambitions.