Adolescence is a painful and dangerous moment, the time when our choices begin to have real and lasting consequences. All teenagers, whether they realize it or not, will have plenty of opportunities to screw up everything forever for themselves and to commit very adult atrocities. One definition of a monster might be the marriage of deadly potentiality to unformed, hormone-driven intelligence.
Super Dark Times, an impressive first film from director Kevin Phillips (who co-wrote the film with Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski) that premiered at Tribeca Film Festival a couple of weeks ago and closes the Film Society of Little Rock's Fantastic Film and Craft Beer Festival on Sunday evening, is a consideration of how such monsters might be born from frustration and happenstance. It's a horror movie of sorts, rooted in the banal comfort of the anonymous small-town suburbs of mid-1990s pre-internet America, a decade on from the bike-riding goonies of Stranger Things.
Super Dark Times
87 Cast: Owen Campbell, Charlie Tahan, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Max Talisman, Sawyer Barth, Amy Hargreaves, Adea Lennox
Director: Kevin Phillips
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Here Everykid Zach (Owen Campbell) and mop-haired Josh (Charlie Tahan) are best friends by default: They've known each other forever and they're in the same classes. They don't yet drive but cover the waterfront on their bikes. They play eight-bit video games and leave the scrambled signals of cable porn on as they sit in the dark talking about the attainability of the girls in their class. Figuring most prominently among these is Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), who both boys agree is pretty cool.
There aren't many adults in this world. The only one who figures is Zack's mom Karen (Amy Hargreaves), a loving figure who provides both boys with warm dinners and a kind of safe space. Though it's never made explicit, we get the feeling something is wrong at Josh's house -- his older brother got out as soon as he could, enlisting in the Marines, leaving behind his basement room, a bag of skunky weed and a samurai sword which maybe isn't the highest quality but is more of a lethal tool than the swords normally sold to tourists as wall hangings.
Zach and Josh have other friends. Daryl (Max Talisman), a chunky kid who seems to have emotional problems, and Charlie (Sawyer Barth), a middle-schooler wise beyond his years. It's Josh's need to impress these others that leads to a horrible accident, which causes the film to pivot from a relatively clear-eyed coming of age story -- Phillips frames a shot or two to invoke 1986's Stand By Me but the tenor of the film is closer to the naturalistic River's Edge, which came out the same year and at one point (I think) can be glimpsed in passing on the television in Zack's bedroom -- to a tense and genuinely unsettling thriller that, in its abrupt final moments (when the adults finally show up), imposes a sense of solemn scale on the proceedings.
On one level, Super Dark Times can be read as a movie about what happens when your best friend's interests diverge from yours, or how sexual jealousy might screw up a bromance. Let's applaud Phillips for at least trying for something less reductive than another teen slasher movie and for having the taste to resist injecting quirkiness and black humor into the mix. He does indulge in maybe one too many dream sequences (but a surreal opening scene involving the death of a panicked deer serves as a powerful visual epigraph; some creatures are just too skittish for this world).
It helps that the performances are uniformly good, especially Tahan's as unreliable, vaguely troubled Josh. While the actors may in fact be older than the characters they play, they all sound very much like kids -- the dialogue feels natural and unforced.
While the script is perhaps not equal to Eli Born's cinematography, Super Dark Times is a gripping, visceral movie that those of us who grew up in suburbs similar to the one depicted here might experience as deja vu. This is how it feels to finally recognize the off-ness of someone you've always taken for granted.
Super Dark Times will screen as part of the Fantastic Film Festival at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Ron Robinson Theater, 100 River Market Ave., Little Rock., with a Q&A session with director Kevin Phillips to follow. Tickets and information about the festival are at fantasticcinema.com.
MovieStyle on 05/05/2017