IN A NUTSHELL: New York–based filmmaker Kevin Phillips knocks his debut feature out of the park, delivering a haunting, visually stunning, genre-busting tale reminiscent the best work of Gus Van Sant and Gregg Araki.
If high school was decidedly not the best time of your life, here’s a movie for you…
When it comes to movies about high schoolers, few possess the cinematic language to really nail the whole confusing, emotionally charged experience in any meaningful way. Because unlike the teenage characters who routinely grace the big screen, very few of us were brainiac mathletes, prom queens, varsity quarterbacks, class valedictorians, total outcasts, or class clowns. As Kevin Phillips' auspicious directorial debut, SUPER DARK TIMES, illustrates, most of us at that age exist in that isolated in-between place—straddling different cliques, harboring secrets, eternally longing to fit in, stuck between childhood and adulthood, and desperately trying to figure out where we're going (and who we might become).
But it isn’t just the film’s teenagers who are teetering on the precipice of change: SUPER DARK TIMES takes place in the early 1990s in an America about to experience the Columbine massacre. (In other words, there’s an actual reason for the film’s ’90s setting—it’s not just nostalgic window dressing that invites us to elbow our seatmates every time a VCR or a particularly retro haircut shows up onscreen.) The shocking events of April 20, 1999, had immediate and long-term effects that reverberated throughout the nation, sparking discussions on toxic masculinity and what it means to be a young white American male. All of a sudden, suburban parents weren’t just worried about what might happen to their children—they were worried about what their children might do.
The America of SUPER DARK TIMES isn’t there yet, though. The working-class suburban kids at the center of the narrative are largely left to their own devices by their well-meaning parents—we see them riding their bikes through the woods, clowning around, hitting a convenience store for questionable snacks, rifling through their older brothers’ basement bedrooms in search of coveted contraband (e.g., marijuana, porn, and a samurai sword), and flipping through yearbooks while talking about their crushes. In other words, pretty average activities for a pretty average pack of teenage boys in the early ’90s, among them best friends Zach (Owen Campbell), a sensitive kid who lives with his mother, and Josh (Charlie Tahan), an angsty video gamer who’s a bit hard to read.
It’s all gleeful fun and games, until Josh “snaps,” semi-accidentally killing their friend Darryl with the aforementioned samurai sword as they play around in the woods. “Snaps”: That’s a verb we hear a lot of in relation to the type of testosterone-fueled violence that spills out of the film’s second act, but as we often find out in their wake, something has been simmering for quite some time. Before this point, we’ve only gotten a glimpse at what is really going on inside Josh’s head: When he finds out Zach has been hanging out with a girl they both have a crush on (Allison, played by Elizabeth Cappuccino), he gives a quick look that conveys subtle hurt before retreating back into his more guarded facade.
After the killing, Zach and Josh go from close friends to distant accomplices—afraid to tell their parents what has happened, they hurriedly hide the body beneath a pile of leaves, stow the weapon, and then go their separate ways. And as the minutes, hours, and days pass by without the body being discovered, the dread, paranoia, and isolation intensify while their friendship unravels. And it’s this all-encompassing sense of isolation that makes the film (and being a teenager) so terrifying.
After all, most of us don’t worry about the ghosts, serial killers, and zombies that populate horror movies entering and disrupting our lives—the horror at the center of SUPER DARK TIMES hits much closer to home. We’re forced us to think about all the times we narrowly managed to avoid a disastrous consequence for our reckless actions, and we’re reminded that no matter how much time we spend with our friends, there are parts of them we may never be able to know or get close to—parts they keep to themselves, either out of shyness or shame or sociopathy. (And forget about being able to talk to your parents about anything when you’re 17.)
The tension and mood are amplified by the film’s atmospheric, artful style—Phillips and cinematographer Eli Born employ shadows, silvery reflections, and widescreen shots to fully envelop the viewer in a chilly upstate New York. The dark mood of the film’s real world segues masterfully into some really captivating, hormone- and adrenaline-fueled actual nightmares that flicker through Zach’s head as he deals with the coverup of the crime AND the sweet, tentative romance that’s starting to bloom at exactly the wrong time. Here, the young actors are at their best, all awkward smiles and furtive glances that say all of the things their characters can't.
The trance—which begins at the very start with an ominous scene in an empty high school that feels a bit like a bad dream, and may or may not be—isn’t broken even as the film ratchets up into full-on horror mode, where it registers its biggest shift in tone. Without giving away the ending, I can say that this final act feels like the first and only misstep for an otherwise strong and compelling debut. Still, it finishes strong with a dreamy final shot I’ll be thinking about for a very, very long time.
(And, well, if high school really was the best time of your life, you'll probably want to skip this one.)