We open with ominous shots of an empty high school at dawn. A broken window looks into a classroom with scattered desks and drifting papers. An empty hallway with blood smearing the floor and part of the wall. Then a janitor enters a room to find a deer on the floor, covered in blood and hanging onto life by a thread. A few seconds later a cop is stomping on its neck to put it out of its misery as a shaken student looks on.
These are the first few minutes of Super Dark Times, director Kevin Phillips’ feature debut. And in typical cold-open fashion, they have nothing to do with the rest of the film. Rather, they exist solely to set the tone for the proceedings. The opening suggests a portrait of adolescence tainted by violence, and that’s exactly what we get.
Enter Zach (Owen Campbell, FX’s The Americans) and Josh (Charlie Tahan, Netflix’s Ozark). The two are sitting on the former’s couch flipping through a yearbook while scrambled porn plays on the TV. It’s the mid-90s and the innocence of a pre-Columbine, pre-9/11 world fills the air. They set out on their bikes with no real destination. Among their in-depth discussions of comic book heroes, they happen upon Daryl (Max Talisman) and Charlie (Sawyer Barth), minor acquaintances from high school, who join them on their aimless afternoon excursion. Though what transpires isn’t exactly hard to guess from official plot descriptions, I’ll refrain from specifics anyway. All you need to know is that they find themselves horsing around a secluded field and something very bad happens.
Referred to in theatre as the “point of no return,” an irreversible mistake is made that changes their world in an instant. Making matters worse, the teens opt to cover up their mistake rather than call for help. Josh is the perpetrator, but the remaining hour mainly follows Zach as he copes with having this new doozy of a secret. I’ve read of comparisons to Donnie Darko, which superficially make sense. Both are period-set stories of troubled high schoolers, but I never would’ve made the connection myself.
While Donnie and Zach are both plagued by strange hallucinations/dreams, Super Dark Times is firmly rooted in realism. There are a few later exceptions, but there’s something about this world that’s entirely relatable. Set in a suburb of upstate New York, there’s a potent familiarity for anyone who went to high school in a small town. Add to that some understated, natural performances from our leads and it makes the event that happens that much more jarring.
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It’s not that common that I can really feel the panic felt by the characters. But when the shit hits the fan here I was downright nervous. Owen Campbell as Zach is the clear MVP here, portraying guilt-stricken trauma with ease. When he’s back at home later that evening it’s in direct contrast to when he was home the night before, pranking his mom. Now sporting a glaze in his eyes, you can practically see the weight of this secret crumbling his existence. A deliberate “I love you” to his mother before he heads to bed harbors a sad uncertainty that’s positively heartbreaking.
And unlike other films, this behavioral shift isn’t lost on his mom. Played with charm and savvy humor by Amy Hargreaves (Homeland), Karen knows something’s bugging her son. And she lovingly tries to tease it out of an increasingly distant Zach, but he’s far too busy figuring out how to process what happened. A brief scene shortly after where she comes to his room with a question that may or may not have to do with the event is a perfect example of the two actors inhabiting their characters’ own worlds. Never in a million years would Karen catch on to what exactly is bugging Zach. But filled with fresh paranoia, he stares wide-eyed at her as he tries his hardest to play it cool.
Being a teenager comes with enough challenges, but all of them are now minute compared to this. Including Allison, the girl he pines for who’s showing a recent interest in him. He genuinely likes her and wants to make it work but as he says at one point, “there’s just… a lot going on right now”.
Allison is also admired by Josh, but as the one who arguably has the bigger burden on his shoulders he’s relegated himself to his room, mindlessly playing video games.
At first, anyway…
The last 20 minutes are certainly ones that will cause some controversy. The path the narrative takes is one of the few aforementioned exceptions to the film’s otherwise heady realism. And while it threatened to lose me a little bit, the subtlety (and sometimes outright lack) of the soundtrack in these scenes helped to dull the trap of sensationalism it could’ve easily fallen into. And remembering that the course of events is likely rooted in a very real coping mechanism for that specific type of trauma helped to ground it for me a little bit more.
Overall I found this to be a very well executed look at guilt, trauma, and adolescence. Cinematographer-turned-director Kevin Phillips shows some serious promise as a filmmaker. He clearly has things to say with his work, and I look forward to whatever he does next.
Super Dark Times is currently available to buy or rent on iTunes and other digital platforms.