A gruesome cover-up between two best friends will have them running from the ‘Super Dark Times’ that haunt them. A harrowing but meticulously observed look at teenage lives in the era prior to the Columbine High School massacre, the film marks the feature debut of gifted director Kevin Phillips, and stars Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) as longtime best friends growing up in a leafy Upstate New York suburb in the 1990s, where teenage life revolves around hanging out, looking for kicks, navigating first love and vying for popularity. When a traumatic incident drives a wedge between the previously inseparable pair, their youthful innocence abruptly vanishes. Each young man processes the tragedy in his own way, until circumstances grow increasingly complex and spiral into violence. ‘Super Dark Times’ is currently not rated.
‘Super Dark Times’ feels like one of those films that blew completely over my head, leaving a trail of uncertainty to the film’s critical praise that leaves me mostly stumped. The acclaim that this film is currently getting, including a near 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, proves that it is finding a voice within the horror community that warrants it as a modern day classic. For me however, Phillip’s film successfully harvests with much confidence that feeling of loneliness and dread that comes with the awkwardness of adolescence, yet it is in the conflict of his narrative where the film flounders off the very uncertainty in direction as to where it’s headed. I didn’t hate or even dislike this movie, but the juice of positive returns didn’t grant me equality from the expectation grip that I was expecting for the film. On basic terms, the film’s attention comes in the form of grief and how these young protagonists are expected to deal with the consequences of a terrible accident that has left each stumbling in their own emotional release. To that degree, the film garners a conscience that speaks in depth about the kind of teenage tragedies that are unfortunately all the repetition these days. But it’s what it chooses to do after picking up that narrative that will make or break it for those who get the chance to see it.
For me, a lot of the problems with this storytelling reside in a curveball that comes completely out of right field about halfway through the film. For much of the its first half, there’s a meaty edginess to the screenplay that involves these two best friends keeping their secret from the rest of the town. I found great intrigue and investment during this period of the movie because these characters feel very human in the mistakes and clumsy efforts that they take to not getting caught, leaving the door wide open for their ignorance to eventually come back to bite them. It feels like Phillips has spent a lot of time around modern teenagers, replicating their speech patterns and shy communications impeccably with much success. Unfortunately, the film’s curveball that I mentioned earlier comes at the hands of very little build or clues along the way that it lays at the feet of its audience, and suddenly we have a direction that feeds more into the friendship of these two male protagonists, as opposed to the horrifying realities and consequences of what they did. This film does feel like it takes place in a dream world of sorts with Phillips attention residing on the very pulse of victim’s guilt, but the lack of answers from the film’s original set-ups left this one feeling quite inconsequential to the overall structure of what was crafted from a chilling first act that laid the groundwork for an enticingly horrific coming of age story.
Clocking in at 102 minutes, the film stays appropriately paced until that switch in direction that does make you feel the consequence of every following minute. I can say that the first two acts of the film flew by, pushing us closer to the inevitable confrontation that Zach and Josh parlay for themselves, and constantly kept me firmly immersed into this 90’s setting that served as a trip down nostalgia lane. But the final thirty minutes of the film just kind of stands idly by to wait for when the audience catches up to the obvious foreshadowing that screenwriters Luke Piotrowski and Ben Collins supplant. Along the way, there is the decision to implant some meandering reminders to show you that the clues were there all along, even if this spiraling twist comes with more consequences than rewards for the film’s conclusion. The final scene in particular is one that I am still left bumbling about, wondering if the writers are hinting that this story isn’t necessarily over yet, or if the realities of shock and devastation cater on like a cancer to the next unfortunate soul.
As for the positives, the artistic direction and shot composition for the movie are two hearty centers that constantly kept the blood pumping throughout this project. I enjoyed that the setting of the 90’s only popped into focus at certain aspects in the film if you were paying attention, and didn’t cloud too much of the frame from what was transpiring in narrative. The best kind of ways that you can use a time-stamped gimmick as such is when it doesn’t feel forced and lets the audience come to it instead of vice versa. The overall cinematography submits to a kind of handheld student picture kind of vibe, and this decision alone merits the kind of authenticity that comes within the kind of framing set from teenagers that makes us feel like we’ve come across a video project to fight the cure for boredom amongst them. The overall gloomy coloring for the film is also a nice touch, radiating a vibe of impending darkness for the characters involved. It all feeds into a visual spectrum that never quit on us even when it feels like the story does, and whether you enjoy or hate this film, the production will most definitely be your favorite aspect.
The performances are very hit or miss, but none of that falls on the responsibility of the main cast. Campbell and Tahan trigger their positions superbly, giving off the vibe of best friends Zach and Josh impeccably authentic. From their unabashed speech patterns to their blossoming on-screen chemistry, the duo’s “us against them” mentality shines brightly through the cloudy setting and tone for the film, presenting levels of depth in their depictions that are leap years ahead of this being their first starring roles. Besides this unfortunately, the extras for the film are quite bland in delivery, and lack the kind of persistence to line reading that lacks believability. I won’t call anyone out by name, but whenever our acclaimed duo aren’t on screen together, my immersion into the film stalled, being treated to underwhelming emotional release that is well under that of status quo. There were many points in the film where I wondered if this film was supposed to be satirical because of the very lackluster ensemble that slowly omits the energy presented by its two male leads. Campbell and Tahan are definitely in grasp of what the material needs to channel teenage grief and angst alike, but their co-stars would rather phone this one in.
THE VERDICT – ‘Super Dark Times’ feeds accordingly on the very cerebrum of teenage boys when they come into contact with traumatic experiences that idle them for existence. Phillips debut feature film is a visual centerpiece that keys in firmly on the mood of isolation and despair that communicates this disposition articulately to its outsiders. Where the film could be better suited is in an attention to just one detail in the film’s script that forces it into a terribly obscure direction from what we were once promised. The final twenty minutes are the most intense, and yet the most reprimanding in terms of consistency from what message it is trying to convey. In the end, there’s enough unsettling atmospheric tension from the train-wreck that we see coming from miles away, inviting us on for the departure of an inevitably prominent directing debut.