Coming-of-age stories set in the ‘80s and ‘90s are everywhere these days, and the script remains the same: friends work together to overcome challenges, growing up along the way while solidifying their bonds — usually while riding bicycles.
“Super Dark Times” is not one of these movies. Set in the pre-internet days of the early ’90s, it is a gripping and disturbing take on the ordinary bildungsroman of the time period. It casts aside the “charming” tropes of the genre for a much scarier, much more honest depiction of teenage life, and ultimately provides a more substantive experience.
It certainly seems that director Kevin Phillips set out to frame growing up as a more Hobbesian process than anything you would see in more charming period piece counterparts. Indeed, the event that triggers the protagonists’ journeys to adulthood is not a first kiss or a new car, but an accidental and tragic death.
From this moment forward, the movie spirals into a gripping nightmare of sex, violence and paranoia as best friends Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) struggle to deal with the aftermath.
The world they attempt to navigate is carefully constructed to evoke a sense of unease. The sky appears grey, and dead leaves litter the ground. Christmas decorations bring no joy, but rather seem to mock what used to embody the innocence of childhood. A handful of shots focusing on bare, twisting tree limbs seem to suggest that nature is no benevolent force in this film, but cruel.
Nature certainly shows no mercy on the pubescent characters of “Super Dark Times.” They are violent, given to outbursts, full of sexual desire yet unable to connect to one another. Teens don’t play with nostalgic objects akin to Super 8 Cameras or Ataris in this film. Instead, they try to make out the fuzzy picture on cable pornography or flip through yearbooks to make lewd comments about their classmates. This is not only a version of the past with the nostalgia removed. It’s a version of the past the viewer would rather not remember. To be sure, the lives of these teens appear difficult even without the extraordinary circumstances of the film.
Any film so tightly focused on the desperate world of a handful of teenagers relies heavily on performance, and the young actors of “Super Dark Times” deliver. Campbell forces the audience to relive their worst teenage anxieties through the character of Zach, while Tahan’s cryptic portrayal of Josh mesmerizes with quiet intensity.
Elizabeth Cappuccino’s performance of Allison, Zach’s love interest, is convincing yet underutilized, functioning mainly as an object of sexual desire for the male characters.
Hardly any adults appear on-screen, and the ones who do are relegated to minor roles (with the arguable exception of Zach’s mom). The result is a claustrophobic world that belongs almost entirely to the teenagers of the film and their raw emotions.
Issues of the believability of this world may arise for some viewers, and perhaps rightfully so. The film vacillates between gritty realism and the more abstract nature of expressionism. Hands break punching walls, but there are also vivid dream sequences and plot elements that feel like an exaggerated version of reality. Neither realism nor abstraction are problematic on their own, but the free mixing of the two leaves the viewer confused about the internal laws of the universe in which the film takes place.
The final thirty minutes are especially polarizing for the audience, and will probably make or break the movie for most viewers. I find the shift that takes place near the end necessary to keep the plot moving and fresh; however, it’s arguable that the climax and conclusion are set up in an ineffective way. This failure to properly make the ending “surprising yet inevitable” might emerge as the film’s biggest flaw.
Minor issues aside, “Super Dark Times” promises an entertaining experience for anyone who enjoys thrilling, spooky-not-terrifying horror films. Bonus points for those who prefer indie movies to Hollywood blockbusters.
Still, the average moviegoer and the precocious film major alike will find something to enjoy in “Super Dark Times.” The plot grabs hold and doesn’t let go, with plenty of mystery and suspense. But anyone willing to look a bit deeper will also find no lack of themes and symbols indicative of a deep and disturbing commentary on human nature and the way we relate to one another.
“Super Dark Times” is screening at Circle Cinema and is available to rent or own on Amazon video.