There is a long tradition of American coming-of-age movies that include bullying, and Kevin Phillips’ Super Dark Times enters this extensive list. For narratives that go bad, films like Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003), Mean Creek (Jacob Aaron Estes, 2004) and Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986) are on everyone’s lips. In Phillips’ film, Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) are best friends, two sweet boys who share their after-school time together by riding bikes, snooping through an older brother’s things or playing video-games. The two kids are bullied by the cool kids who sell weed and have all the power in the unwritten rules of their school. Set around the 90s, things are still innocent. Kids have to call each other’s houses to ask each other out, or throw little stones at the windows. Zach and Josh are joined by a couple of other losers in the forest, and in a game of being cool, their friend Darryl ends up being killed by a sword. The word spreads fast, and the whole town is aware of his absence. From this point on, strange things begin to disturb this quiet suburban community.
Phillips features a bunch of enjoyable, relatable characters. On the verge of adolescence, these boys — their mothers’ darlings — are not prepared to grow up, even if they begin to have teen preoccupations. Josh and Zach’s inseparable bond is broken not only by this horrible secret they have to hide, but also by their crush for the same girl, Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino). Before Super Dark Times shifts to the dark side, one can only have fun and laugh at these cute kids, trying so hard to look older — trash-talking and bragging about their successes with girls. The distinction between the film’s peaceful and thrilling parts is made progressively, as the characters start to act more weird once they realise the amplitude of their actions. While Zach seems really affected, having feverish nightmares about the victim, he tries not to lose it in front of his mother and lies as good as he can. The guilt impedes him from acting normal and getting the girl of his dreams. There is a nice inner battle that Campbell conveys, balancing the struggle to hide something from everybody while selflessly stepping down in front of his best mate.
The cinematography is remarkable — Phillips has worked with both Childish Gambino and Grimes — even though the narrative is rather conventional for this type of movie. Moreover, the tense feeling is accompanied by outstanding sound design, like the blowing of wind over leaves that cover the corpse in the woods, along with the fantastic soundtrack. The built up tension is mandatory for thrillers, although the director doesn’t focus on that as much as on the youthful, indie spirit and the surprising reactions of these boys when confronted with murder. Once Josh begins skipping school, Super Dark Times becomes crushingly tense. His reaction to Daryl’s death is quite detached, and he starts acting bold, doing things he didn’t seem to consider before, like giving away his brother’s weed at a party. In this sense, even if the story takes place before the Columbine incident, the aggressive behaviour (and the response to it) seems to be strongly rooted in the kids’ mentality. Even so, the comparison with Van Sant’s cult film is not far-fetched, since Phillips captures psychopathic behavior without much explanation. The director is not that radical, lacking the rigorous and almost documentary style of Van Sant, yet his non-judgemental approach is admirable.
The beauty of Super Dark Times can be found in its caring and sensitive vision for the characters’ world. Whether the killer is sick or just a frustrated, repressed teen filled with resent is secondary to the story. In a disheartening narrative, Phillips describes the loss of innocence, focusing less on the creepy and more on the gripping destruction of a friendship.
Andreea Pătru (@andreeapatru89) is a Romanian film critic and programmer who resides in Spain. Apart from taking part in the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy and Talents Sarajevo in 2016, she has written for Indiewire, Desistfilm and collaborated with Romanian outlets such as Film Reporter, Observator Cultural and FILM magazine. Andreea is a programmer at Tenerife Shorts – Tenerife International Short Film Festival and has previously worked for Romanian Film Promotion.