Super Dark Times (2017) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would be R for violence, language, sexualitym and drug use among teens
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Owen Campbell, Charlie Tahan, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Mark Talisman, Sawyer Barth, Amy Hargreaves
Director: Kevin Phillips
Screenplay: Ben Collins, Luke Piotrowski
Review published October 18, 2017
One could, if one weren't taking the film seriously, assume that Super Dark Times is a modern-day equivalent of Reefer Madness, considering how most of the "super dark" events that occur in the film happen shortly after someone takes a hit of a joint. In this way, it's a bit like the ominous shark theme from Jaws, whereby we know something bad is about to happen to suggest to us that we should feel fright for the characters we come to connect toward through some quality character building.
That character building comes thanks to first-timer Kevin Phillips direction of his actors (working from a script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, who collaborated on Phillips' similar effort in short form, Too Cool for School), exhibiting good chemistry amongst each other in behavior that's very believable when the film isn't in a mode to thrill. With conversations among kids that go off on their own adventures, some viewers will be reminded of Stand by Me in its approach (some might tie this in the the recent nostalgia for horror set in the 1980s, such as It and "Stranger Things"), though the events of the film take a more inwardly sinister turn that makes Super Dark Times more of its own thing. The authenticity in the dialogue and interactions is partially due not only to the fact that the people who created the film came of age in this setting, but also that some of the things the boys do are things the writers and director actually did when they were in their teenage years.
The setting is a town in upstate New York in the mid-1990s. Owen Campbell (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) plays the more sensitive of the two best friends, Zach (Tahan, Love is Strange), who doesn't always see eye to eye with his BFF Josh, but the two do relate to each other in a way they just don't with anyone else. They both have a crush on a friend of theirs, Allison (Cappuccino, "Jessica Jones"), but she seems to have a little more of a reciprocal feeling at the moment for Owen, though he's not really experienced enough to know just what to do about it. Meanwhile, they end up hanging out with a couple of other local boys, Daryl (Talisman) and Charlie ("Public Morals"), at least until a tragedy takes place, and, in the aftermath, the boys have to cope with the memories of what has happened at a time when they aren't quite ready for life' harsher realities.
The '90s setting is a plus, as this is an era in which kids are not quite yet on the verge of feeling persistently connected to one another, having to see each other out on the street to talk, or having to call a family land line and try to have a private conversation when the troll of an older brother or the strict parent makes such a simple request a great chore. It's an innocent time, when trying to see s picture of a crush is relegated to viewing a picture in a yearbook, and seeing a naked woman is limited to what might be showing late at night on a cable channel -- and if you don't have that, you have to watch and hope you catch a glimpse in a scrambled format.
Exploring the effect of deep-seated paranoia and guilt on the minds of those who haven't the life experience to process it in a healthy way, especially when there is no ready outlet to be able to talk about their feelings, Super Dark Times is a coming-of-age film on the one hand, but it's also a psychological thriller on the other. As that guilt begins to crack the fragile psyche of the naive teens, it becomes heavier than they can handle. That lack of being able to cope begins to manifest itself in some erratic behavior, from desire to disconnect, to strange and awful dreams, to living nightmares. And when young boys are wanting to prove they are young men, it only gets worse from there.
Bolstered by great sound design and Ben Frost's intense and suspenseful score, Phillips shows a good sense of how to foreshadow the ominous events to come, starting with the opening scene of a violent death in the normally safe confines of the school for an innocent creature that had no reason to lose its life save for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There's also a very well considered scene later where we find the quartet of young men slashing full milk cartons to practice their sword play. The milk embodies the sense of wholesomeness that is literally being destroyed by that sword, which will echo what we learn later. It also suggests the other connotation of carton's of milk being the place where 'missing children' notices are displayed, which definitely becomes a big part of the story as we observe it unfold through that scene and beyond.
Also setting the temp are Zach's dreams, which are full of moments of fear and paranoia, giving us his mind state as he tries to deal with the aftermath of the actions they've taken. While disturbing, one can only pause and shudder to think of his exponentially nightmarish the dreams of Josh must be, who has no one that he can rely on in his life, and to whom much more guilt could be associated with the tragic situation that developed and would lay largely unresolved. Dreams are a narrative device often used to explain things without dialogue, and yet, despite its mechanics, it works well for the nightmares that we don't get to see, which makes it all the more frightening to us in our collective imaginations
If there is an aspect of Super Dark Times that keeps me from ecstatically recommending it, it is how the final quarter of the film develops and plays out. It's not that where the story goes is unwarranted at all, as Phillips does a great job in setting up the events that play out. It's that these scenes are awkwardly presented and paced in a way that makes it difficult to tell what's going on front shot to shot, and the suspense that had been so prevalent in the build-up to those moments cannot be sustained when they are being edited in a manner that doesn't quite work for the tone. It feels forced in a story that, until that point, feels so natural and seamless in the way it develops.
When combining these elements with the already natural competitiveness for teenagers in trying to catch a girl's eye, or achieve greatness in class and in sport, or just in popularity, the bad mix of psychological and emotional pressure can be overwhelming. Set, perhaps deliberately, prior to the tragic events of Columbine, Super Dark Times explores the lives of mentally fragile suburban white male teenagers who lash out violently against a world that they feel doesn't seem to be able to understand them any longer. Unfortunately, those danger signs of those dark times going on in the world of teenagers in many pockets of the country would not come to be learned until it was too late.
©2017 Vince Leo