The Kids Aren’t All Right: Vividly moody, harrowing “Super Dark Times” a remarkable debut

Super Dark Times (2017)
102 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

A remarkably haunting feature debut to be proud of, director Kevin Phillips’ “Super Dark Times” sets an unsettling mood and sustains it from there with the aftermath of a bloodied deer that has smashed its way through a school window and takes its last breaths. It’s disconnected from the plot proper, but it efficaciously casts a dark cloud over this coming-of-age tale in a pre-Columbine era that disturbingly and authentically dissolves into an earth-bound nightmare of innocence lost and the collapse of friendship. Not dissimilar to “River’s Edge” and “Stand by Me” (both released in 1986) and 2004’s “Mean Creek,” “Super Dark Times” is harrowing, excellently acted, sensitively observed and vividly moody, earning the right to be placed in the same sentence as those three films before it.

Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) are best friends trying to navigate through high school in a grey New York town. One day after school, the two run into eighth grader Charlie (Sawyer Barth) and his obnoxious friend Daryl (Max Talisman). They hang outside a convenience store and buy gross food, daring each other to eat it until they throw up. Another day, the teens go through the bedroom of Josh’s older Marine brother, finding a samurai sword and a bag of weed, and take both findings to a field to try out the sword on milk cartons. One of them won’t be going home that afternoon when things get volatile, and after the irreversibly horrible accident that the boys react on impulse and frantically try covering up, those left standing are forced to grow up, while the tragedy takes Josh to the heart of darkness. No one involved will ever be the same again.

“Super Dark Times” fully captures what it feels like to be a youth in the 1990s when times were simpler before cell phones and social media. These adolescent boys play video games, try watching porn through the white noise of a TV in one of their basements, debate between Silver Surfer and The Punisher, flip through their yearbook and compare girls, spend time outside riding their bikes, gratuitously revel in profanity as if it's a "word of the day" and makes them seem cool, and share their pleasure stories of masturbation over Jamie Lee Curtis’ stripping scene in “True Lies.” Suffice it to say, these kids aren’t involved in student council or intramural sports and have a lot of time on their hands. Director Kevin Phillips and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski find levity in these early stretches of boys-being-boys behavior before the inciting incident that changes the course of the film. The tragedy that distances two friends and tests their trust with each other is startlingly staged without feeling exploitative, like a punch to the gut that had this viewer’s hand on his mouth.

Not an ounce of precociousness is found in the naturalistic performances of the young actors playing teenage boys, right down to their facial acne. Owen Campbell (TV’s “The Americans”) is phenomenal at the center as the relatable Zach, engulfed by a human sense of guilt and the weight of the world on his shoulders but trying to put on a brave face and internalize all of his emotions. He then approaches every new discovery about the best friend he thought he knew with a devastating honesty. Even without the scenes of violence, Charlie Tahan (2014’s “Love Is Strange”) is chilling and completely without affectation as the shaggy-haired Josh who crosses the point of no return, a difficult arc that the 19-year-old actor handles with alarming subtlety. From top to bottom, the cast is exceptional, including Elizabeth Cappuccino, a breath of fresh air who exhibits a lovely, instantly likable presence as Allison Bannister, the studious, popular but cool girl Zach and Josh both pine after; and Amy Hargreaves makes her few scenes truly affecting as Zach’s loving, concerned mother after playing a different motherly role on Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why.”

Reminding audiences that independent cinema can be personal, powerful works of art rather than esoteric or “artsy,” “Super Dark Times” deserves to be sought out, even if it’s only being released in select cities and on digital platforms. The accomplished level of filmmaking on display here is a total testament to first-time director Kevin Phillips’ lack of fear in using silence and stillness. With a mastery of mood in a look at ‘90s Americana sometime between fall and winter, Eli Born’s cinematography is stunningly evocative, with an attention to silhouettes quite striking, and even nightmarish, particularly in a perversely psychosexual dream sequence that recalls Lars von Trier's "Antichrist"; the editing is scrupulous and often intense; and the piercing, nerve-jangling music score by Ben Frost unsettles and adds to the suffocating sense of dread. For a film not classed as a horror film, though just as bleak, visceral and frightening, “Super Dark Times” still tests the viewer’s handling of stress, intensity and paranoia. Though the film’s final shot leaves a shred of hope and regained innocence for one of its scarred characters, it leaves the viewer shaken to the core with a lingering emotional resonance.

Grade: A -