SUPER DARK TIMES
Directed by Kevin Phillips
The teenage years are usually when the personal monsters emerge. Juxtaposed with the wonder of childhood, they mark a stark jump in pace and understanding of the world. Our bodies change, everything feels devastating and nobody gets us. Still, darn do they make for good horror fodder, with many genre classics focusing on growing pains: Carrie, The Lost Boys, The Craft, Bates Motel, Ginger Snaps, Raw etc. This feature length debut, from director Kevin Philips, comes frustratingly close to making the list, capturing the mumbling and fumbling of adolescence with a rare honesty that really resonates. However, whilst I wanted to love it I could only really like it.
It’s the mid-nineties, in a sleepy New York suburb at one of the lesser known points on the Hudson. As the fall is soon to give way for Winter, uncool kids Zach (Campbell) and Josh (Tahan) are two boys on the cusp of becoming men. Idly, they spend their pre-internet days debating superheroes, fearing bullies, going on long bike rides round the woods and talking about girls – particularly their mutual crush Allison (Cappuccino). Ultimately they’re going nowhere fast, waiting for someone or something to shake things up. Zach originally seems an every-kid, and is the more content of the two. Josh has far more rancour, in the shadow of a marine older brother and wanting to be hero for the day. Hence why he shows off his on-duty sibling’s Samurai sword one fateful afternoon. Then, as they innocently slash milk cartons in the park it, something devastating happens. It’s a violent accident that will take the last of their innocence and send them on self-destructive paths towards a grueling finale.
It’s hard not to see a hint of of Stand By Me, with the cocktail of small town America, violence and adolescence adding up to a nasty loss of innocence. Likewise, Donnie Darko seems a clear visual influence, with the same dreamy quality and soft focus. Yet Super Dark Times preserves its identity throughout by taking an altogether more delicate approach to its teens and their secret (well, until the last half hour). At first, Zach thinks he’s able to control it and cover up what happened that day. However, soon he starts to crack as he loses sleep, reluctantly has to lie to his mother and struggles to put on a brave face. Josh, in contrast, starts skipping school, acting out with his teacher and dealing drugs. But suddenly he seems to go back to normal – surely that’s got to be a good thing, right?
Their bond provides an emotional centre to the story, with the moment when you struggle to recognise your best friend, barely able to look them in the eye any longer, being well handled. Zach, trying to make sense of something senseless, will be familiar to anyone who found themselves in over the heads. The dialogue is exemplary, with the film even taking their angst before the accident seriously. It’s deeply empathetic, reminding the older audiences that even if the feelings of despair will pass, they don’t necessarily feel like they will at the time. Visually it’s similarly adept, with Super Bad Times being a sustained effort in mood. The cold sparse landscapes, which amplify the isolation, are captured well from the first seconds up ‘til the end credits. A cold opener depicts a dying deer being put out its misery between the desks of a classroom by a cop. While this may not be linked to the story per se, it provides a tone and parable for what follows. Yet its moments of sweetness, such as when Zach is unable to tell anyone what’s getting to him, but silently finds connection in Allison, that save it from nihilism – some warmth in the cold. It says that it may be dark now, although the sun’s still there even if it’s obscured by clouds.
But as with how adolescents can awkwardly transition into adulthood, the character study of the first two acts makes way for a poor transition into thriller territory in the last. Often this sort of film would play on the paranoia of the police finding out, or one of the boys dobbing the other in. And while it’s a good thing the story doesn’t go in that tried and tested direction, the way the writers try to introduce tension instead is far less organic. To say what happens would risk spoilers, but the sense of threat is escalated with neither the subtlety nor the cohesion of the first two thirds. It all rests on an arc for which the seeds have been successfully planted but have barely been watered. Of course, as per kids films often won’t go on to be what you think they should be. And while this certainly doesn’t make it a waste of time, it’s hard not to feel a bit disappointed considering how much potential they have.