Super Dark Times? How about Super Fuckin’ Dark Kick-Your-Teeth-In Stressful No Good Very Bad Times. Writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski construct a backyard crime drama – like if Brick followed a cover-up instead of investigation – while debut filmmaker Kevin Phillips acts as visionary/our soul’s executioner. You know what’s going to happen. It’s obvious. That still doesn’t keep this maliciously pitch-black thriller from ripping your guts out, locked eye-to-eye all the while. Tension is tighter than a leather gag and adolescent unpreparedness heightens reaction. Choke on your fancy words, because there’s only one phrase that captures our reaction – holy shit. Savage, sincere and so very unsettling.
Collins and Piotrowski open on death – a dear carcass that’s been dragged into a school cafeteria. It’s a short intro that leads into Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) sitting on a basement sofa, discussing boyhood pleasantries. Angsty aggression and opinions given when no one else is listening (we were all young, once). The boys meet with other local children, eat dried squid and constantly try to assert their dominance. Before long there’s an argument over a sibling’s weed, dangerous weapons and another dead body – this time of the human kind. Zach and Josh scatter, but the whole ordeal weighs heavier with each passing day. Can the boys hold it together until heat dies down? Maybe. Until they learn their hidden murder weapon is missing.
Super Dark Times has the pleasure of being so 90s it’s painful, from scruffy mops of hair to post-class freedom. Children spend their time riding bikes and figuring out ways to get in trouble, not sitting silently while mesmerized by smartphones. Zach and Josh have to watch their porn between blurry TV distortion when you don’t pay for PPV programming, hearkening back to a less advanced era that puts a bottleneck on information. It’s totally conceivable that a child may not come home one night and there be days before investigative progress is made. No GPS tracking. No iCloud databases. Phillips indulges in this advantageous storytelling device that never needs to outsmart, allowing a focus on deliciously dark tension.
Such devious decadence wouldn’t be possible without rattled performances from the young cast, who all embrace their realities by playing into expectancy. They drop “F” bombs and gobble pizza rolls like many 90s kids did (flashbacks abound), but when “it” happens – goddamn. You feel each boy’s heart skip twenty beats, which tears down protective emotional walls. Just a few hormonal boys playing with something they shouldn’t. Now they’re left covering up a bloody accident? It’s the after-school-special no parent ever wants to live out, from the perspective of teens who can barely go twenty seconds without exposing their immaturity. A perfect storm of “holy fucks” and broken hearts, thrust into chaotic consequence avoidance.
Phillips’ schoolyard collective all shoulder this character-driven thriller with perilous power, but it’s Charlie Tehran and Owen Campbell who embrace the most darkness. One’s appearance suggests an outsider with the propensity for mass-murder decision-making, while the other becomes numb and paranoid. Both boys navigate friendship, curfews and bloodshed, while supporting castmates cloud motivations. A third accomplice who could be a wildcard? That’d be an aggressive Sawyer Barth. The beautiful crush who drives a love-triangle wedge? Elizabeth Cappuccino plays innocent and distracting. The “obnoxious” but means-well classmate who appears to be on the spectrum? Max Talisman tests Tahan’s patience with each social miscue. These are children who exist in societal ecosystems built on trust, yet their disastrous mishap becomes the very debasing of a faulty system. So emotive in their fear, and in-over-their-heads without a second to think clearly.
In Super Dark Times, writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski comprise a punishing mixtape of dreary days. Director Kevin Phillips then turns these scribbled ideas into a deadly-serious first feature, one that rips and tears through the most hardened psyche. There’s a juvenile punkness present in musical cues (except for Donna Lewis’ kiss interruption, because 90s), but never as a gimmick or gag. Phillips has his finger on a super-dark pulse and keeps the pressure applied with a heavy hand. I said this about Ben Young’s Hounds Of Love and I’ll say the same about Phillips’ work here – debuts shouldn’t be this tense or composed, yet Super Dark Times is an instantaneous must-see. Add in a commanding cast and wicked aesthetic, and you’ve got one menacing pubescent tale primed to make a seismic genre splash.
Super Dark Times is a dangerous mix of adolescent tensions and a deadly deed that ignites something much more explosive.