Nostalgia has a way of overwriting reality. Memory can put the good times in spotlights while shrouding the everyday dissatisfaction and awkwardness of growing up in mist. Also shrouded: the frequent awfulness of the people we used to be when we were young. One of the great strengths of Super Dark Times — the first feature film from director Kevin Phillips, working from a script co-written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski — is the way it refuses to forget those moments, or that awfulness.
Set at some indeterminate point in the mid-’90s, one early scene features its teenaged protagonists — Josh (Charlie Tahan) and Zach (Owen Campbell) — flipping through a yearbook and declaring who they wouldn’t have sex with while watching scrambled porn. They’re bored, horny, and both seem a bit short of empathy until the question falls to Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), whom Zach, the more sensitive of the two, can’t think of that way. Or at least not just in that way. She’s a friend, after all, and he might have feelings for her, sentiments the bespectacled, quick-to-anger Josh can’t understand, or maybe doesn’t want to. Before long they’ve moved on to debating the merits of the Punisher versus the Silver Surfer, neither quite recognizing that a schism has opened between them that will only widen over the course of the film. Soon they’ll have a more immediate problem, but it may not be bigger.
Latchkey kids left to their own devices, they spend their afternoons goofing around, playing video games, and trying gross-sounding snacks from the convenience store, sometimes joined by the overweight, awkward Daryl (Max Talisman) and Daryl’s friend from another school Charlie (Sawyer Barth). One day, poking around the abandoned room of Josh’s soldier brother, they find two cool items: a bag of weed and a samurai sword, not realizing these finds will seal their fate. When some horsing around in the woods takes an ugly turn, Daryl learns the hard way that the law of Chekhov’s gun applies equally to swords, leading the three surviving boys to bury his body, hide the weapon, and wait for his disappearance to blow over. But it doesn’t, leading each boy to respond in dramatically different ways.
For Zach, this couldn’t come at a worse time — not that there’s a great time to be caught up in a Shallow Grave-like scenario — since it coincides with Allison taking a genuine romantic interest in him. The days that follow ratchet the built-in awkwardness of adolescence to an unbearable level. He can’t discuss the secret in the woods with his caring mother and he definitely can’t discuss with Allison. And it’s in this second act that Phillips’ already impressive film finds another gear. The film opens with images of the aftermath of a deer running through a classroom window, setting unsettling tone that envelops the film midway through the story. Every interaction becomes fraught with tension. Zach’s dreams mix images of sex and death. Then there’s Josh, whose strange behavior seems like it could be inspired by a secret other than the one they share.
A cinematographer-turned-director, Phillips has an eye for a striking visual and a knack for using them to sustain a mood. Here he gives some familiar scenes of small-town life a nightmarish cast, often using magic hour lighting to eerie effect, treating it less as source of beauty than the moment when the shadows start to creep in. Those shadows take hold of the film in a final stretch that’s scary and well-staged but a little too conventional. But by the time it arrives the film has already made a deep impression. Like so much film and TV right now, it bears the stamp of Stephen King’s influence. But Super Dark Times, true to its name, looks to the shadowiest corners of King’s work. Phillips film often plays like a version of It in which the Losers’ Club discovers they’re the source of Derry’s problems or a Stand By Me that centers on a body of the kids’ own creation. It’s a film that remembers how awful it can be to grow up, and that even those who survive it usually don’t get out without taking a few scars.
Super Dark Times opens in limited release on Friday, September 29th.