Studio: The Orchard
Director: Kevin Phillips
Writer: Ben Collins, Luke Piotrowski
Producer: Richard Peete, Jett Steiger, Edward Parks
Stars: Owen Campbell, Charlie Tahan, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Max Talisman, Amy Hargreaves, Sawyer Barth, Adea Lennox
A friendship fractures when an unexpected accident takes two teenage boys down darkly transformative paths.
Genre film journalists can be quick on the draw when it comes to prematurely identifying, and often misperceiving, contemporary trends. That’s how we ended up with the debated term “deathwave” to describe emotionally-grounded horror films that otherwise don’t share much in common besides playing the same festival circuits. Or “post-horror” as an equally dubious alternative to “elevated” when it comes to categorizing the kind of atmospheric arthouse experiences A24 is known for.
I’m hesitant to jump the same gun, so I’ll stop short of trying to concoct a clever label for what I’m about to get into next. (Though if I dared, it would probably be something along the silly lines of “sinister suburbia.”) Nevertheless, I believe the feel of “Super Dark Times” can be conveyed by likening it to stylistically similar films that have peppered the indie landscape since somewhere around 2012.
“Super Dark Times” takes place in one of those cinematic suburbs dotted by small town charm, yet dominated by ominously overcast skies. Strip the supernatural elements and you’ve visited neighborhoods like this in “It Follows” (review here) and “I Am Not a Serial Killer” (review here). Mute the black comedy and “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” might be on the same map. Picture these places as sleepy ponds slowly poisoned by a murder or a monster.
“Super Dark Times” puts its pushpin into this same geography where directors such as Osgood Perkins, Nicholas McCarthy, Kasra Farahani, even the Coen Brothers pluck their ideas and plant their premises. As relatable as such environments might be, mood becomes macabre, and initially innocuous actions beget psychologically complex consequences.
“Super Dark Times” starts with a startling scene of two lawmen primitively euthanizing a dying deer injured after breaking through a high school’s window. Springing instantly to mind is the similar prologue in “The Invitation” (review here), when Will is forced to kill a coyote hit by his car en route to a dinner party.
Both scenes may mildly confuse moviegoers over the necessity of their inclusions. Like “The Invitation,” the reason “Super Dark Times” begins with this unsettling bang is to fire a shot across the bow warning to prepare for uneasiness ahead. Act one is about to go through exposition involving average days in the lives of average teens. But the film wants to first fertilize a subconscious seed that despite outward appearances, nothing is normal and no one should feel completely comfortable.
Best friends Zach and Josh are typical teen boys. They’re in the twilight of innocent adolescence, still biking to 7-11 for junk food while musing if Silver Surfer is lonelier than The Punisher. Yet they’re also waxing into more masculine immaturity, pointing at yearbook pictures with fingers identifying which girls they would “do.”
You know the satellites orbiting their circle. Zach’s crush Allison isn’t so much of a girl next door that she isn’t willing to blaze an occasional joint. Daryl is a loudmouth tagalong barely tolerated by Josh while Zach maintains a memory of the friend Daryl was when they were younger.
Owen Campbell (Zach), Charlie Tahan (Josh), Elizabeth Cappuccino (Allison), Max Talisman (Daryl), and Sawyer Barth, who plays fourth friend Charlie, are so magnetically authentic, I would willingly watch a feature-length version of their introductory scenes because of how organically engaging they are, even when, especially when, they are being ordinary. There isn’t any mugging. Nor is there any unnatural staging. The actors are so comfortable in their characters, they don’t appear to be cognizant there is a camera at all. By extension, the viewer comes to forget s/he is watching them on a screen and not through a window. That is how effectively everyone ropes you into their world.
Excellent production design ices this cake. “Super Dark Times” is set in the 1990s, but doesn’t scream the era in your ears or your eyes the way “Stranger Things” does with the decade before. Subtle props and costuming choices read as real as the people and their blue-collar plights, adding one more detailed layer to an already immersive illusion.
In an instant, an unexpected tragedy transforms the friends and their friendships. Neither their minds nor their emotions are equipped to process what comes next, which sets each person involved down a different path of despair. All of those paths lead back to one another, and the people they become in the interim are poised for a chilling collision none of them would have ever imagined was possible.
With an iron grip grasp on the personalities and their problems, the film’s strong step only stumbles at the conclusion. “Super Dark Times” finds its rhythm without exaggerated bells or whistles, until the ending suddenly seeks acceleration from unnecessary artifices such as a slow-motion thunderstorm to accentuate a final fight. An epilogue from a secondary point of view then punctuates the notion that the resolution doesn’t use the loose ends an audience would most like to see tied.
Yet once invested in the setting as well as the stakes, the classmates’ conflicts, confusion, frustrations, and trauma translate into tension that tightens your muscles with constant anticipation over how these unfortunate lives will be darkened or damaged next. Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski smartly scripted a disturbing story. Kevin Phillips’ directing, remarkably assured for a first-time feature, then tunes every element in tandem with his cast to achieve pinpoint precision on an absolutely arresting atmosphere.
“Haunting” is a word tossed around wantonly when describing thrillers with a cerebral edge. “Super Dark Times” knows precisely what that word means and how to convincingly command it as a quality. The movie is one of those rare experiences tattooed in your mind’s eye after it is over, truly haunting your head with echoes of its affecting horror.
Review Score: 90