In Super Dark Times (2017), a teen must come to grips with his increasingly psychotic friend in this harrowing and tense coming-of-age thriller. Written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, and directed by Kevin Phillips, this indie film’s competency highlights why Hollywood is failing. Younger, more creative filmmakers are using technology and innovation to craft solid, beautifully-rendered films that put big-budget studios to shame.
Director Kevin Phillips is mostly known for his short film cinematography, and he’s spent the past twelve years honing his craft. Nearly every scene in this film is beautiful, but it’s not another example of “style over substance.” The movie is structurally sound, competently written, and the dialogue is believable. It reminds me of films from the ’80s and early ’90s, which tried to ground fantastic or extreme situations in reality.
As Super Dark Times opens, a buck has accidentally crashed into a high school and severely injured itself. Two police officers clear the scene and put it down. This dramatic and brutal scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. Enter four acquaintances, childhood friends Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan), Daryl (Max Talisman), and an 8th-grader named Charlie (Sawyer Barth). Zach and Josh both have a crush on classmate Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), but she eventually chooses Zach.
The kids discover a bag of marijuana and a samurai sword in Josh’s brother’s bedroom and take it to a park to mess around. Josh and Daryl get into an argument and Josh accidentally stabs him in the neck, killing him. The teens hide Daryl’s body in the woods and try to forget about the crime, but Josh’s increasingly erratic behavior stokes Zach’s guilt and paranoia. The film’s sickening climax is disturbing and difficult to watch, but the entire film has you on edge from start to finish.
Super Dark Times is in many ways a typical coming-of-age film, but unlike Superbad (2007), which shares a deceptively similar name, it is far from the raunchy comedy we’ve come to expect. Like Stand by Me (1986), it subverts the genre and takes it to a much darker place.
The movie was filmed in Kingston, New York along the Hudson River in autumn. The picturesque and quiet setting perfectly contrasts with the brutal violence. My favorite scenes, however, were very wide shots of the teens riding their bikes down a deserted street. The audio is crystal clear, but they seem swallowed up by the background. Their smallness re-emphasizes their age and place in the world.
If I had one criticism, it would be that the female characters are underdeveloped and serve mostly as pretty window dressing to move the plot along. They have no agency or motives of their own. Prior to this film, Elizabeth Cappuccino had appeared in two TV shows and short films, including Jessica Jones. I would have liked to see her play a more challenging role.
Super Dark Times stars several talented young actors. This is Max Talisman’s first full-length film and he performs admirably as what would normally be the chubby comic relief. Charlie Tahan and Owen Campbell have much more experience under their belts, but all come across authentically.
Super Dark Times is not a perfect movie, but it’s not trying to be. Its simple authenticity comes across more like a documentary than a feature film, and its style takes you back to the early ’90s without overtly playing on nostalgia. Besides Detroit, it was one of the few truly captivating films of 2017.