Teenagers Zach and Josh have been best friends their whole lives, but when a gruesome accident leads to a cover-up, the secret drives a wedge between them and propels them down a rabbit hole of escalating paranoia and violence.
What do you do, after an afternoon with friends goes so badly wrong that someone gets killed? With the body? With the weapon? With each other?
These are the questions – hard enough for your average law-abiding adult to get their head round, let alone a bunch of boys going through the high and lows of teenhood – that Super Dark Times asks, and, mostly, answers.
This is an intriguing and impressive debut feature from Kevin Phillips. His depiction of that carapace of cockiness, built as protection by so many teens but so easily shattered by events they are ill-equipped to deal with, and surrounding a core of vulnerability, is particularly affecting.
It’s a mixture of horror, thriller, and coming-of-age tale – though the swinging between those first two, which can at times seem undecided, can equally well be seen as simply explaining how different kids, even best friends, respond to something so huge, and so tragic. How does a developing brain even begin to process what has happened?
And everyone copes differently. Zach’s mind favours the surreal and dreamlike, which also serves to misdirect us down a different path, that this going to be a straight up horror with the dead returning to wreak revenge. Little Charlie has a determined streak which lets him cope with the aftermath more easily than anyone else older than him. And Josh…
Josh (Charlie Tahan) and Zach (Owen Campbell) are best friends, sharing most things including a crush on Allison, the sweet, pretty girl from school. The two teens spend a lot of time in each other’s bedrooms going through yearbooks and judging both fellow pupils and teachers on fuckability: not just who, but when and where.
But on a cold December afternoon, under a dull white sky, a bag of weed and a samurai sword leads to death and disaster. Josh and Zach are with young Charlie (Sawyer Barth) and schoolmate Daryl (Max Talisman), that irritating boy who so desperately wants to be liked he pushes everyone away with his dodgy jokes and annoying interactions.
This accidental death scene is incredibly well shot, with a heartbreaking crescendo of panic as the children argue over what to do. Get help? Pull the sword out? (“NO!” I was shouting in my head at the screening, but teens never listen to oldies like me and out it came.)
Afterwards Zach continues going to school, though with a cut hand. Josh is at home, pleading illness, brooding, brooding in his bedroom.
Meanwhile just because there’s a body hidden in the woods doesn’t mean that the usual teen angst stops. Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino, sweetly affecting as she is repeatedly rejected by the boy she thought liked her) starts making moves on Zach, but crushed by guilt and terror he keeps pushing her away.
But soon another body turns up – this time one of the local drug dealer bullies – and someone has been back to the scene of the crime.
One thing coming of age films remind me, whenever or wherever they are set, is that I wouldn’t go back to those teen years for anything. And most of us also will recall incidents that could have ended in tragedy or disaster because of our own stupidity, need to impress or feelings of invincibility, but didn’t. “There but for the grace of god go I” is a familiar if silent refrain, looking back on youthful indiscretions.
Super Dark Times is set in the Clinton era where the coolest birthday gift is one’s own personal phone line, and is deliberately positioned before the Columbine shootings, an event seared into America’s psyche. The film even opens with the bizarre sight of a huge dead deer on a schoolroom floor – only in later years would the presence of a shape on a classroom floor and police all around instantly mean terror and grief.
There’s a focus on Zach after the events of that afternoon, which while it provides a firm thread through the aftermath, means we never get to find out what might have caused Josh to act as he does, on and after that day.
Sure, an accidental killing could open up a world of unexpected feelings and reactions in a teen, particularly a teen who is already something of an outsider. But equally was there already something dark and bitter inside Josh that his actions let loose? Once you’ve broken the taboo of killing someone, the second or third time is said to be easier, as you know it’s (ironically) survivable.
Maybe there was always something in him waiting for that trigger to motivate him to seek revenge for slights large and small that previously could only be dealt with brooding in his bedroom or bitching with his friend. Something which, like in so many tragedies, is only found later with the benefit of hindsight.
But this is also a real ensemble piece. Charlie Tahan’s Josh is a boy that first we pity then we fear, as his unpredictability shows itself. Owen Campbell as Zach is terrific as a man-boy with the world now on his shoulders, taking responsibility for the actions of others. While Sawyer Barth manages to infuse little Charlie with a self-possession that only the very young and the very old can muster. I’d also give the cinematography credit for its starring role, as the dreary bleached-out winter sky adds light but no warmth or comfort to proceedings.
It’s a story that really throws us back into those alternately exciting and depressing years. My teens may have been all about Margaret Thatcher, leg warmers and going to Wham! concerts, and I can categorically say I never killed anyone (though I probably wanted to). There were no swords on walls, as we tended to decorate our bedrooms with stolen Lollipop road crossing signs and traffic cones.
But those feelings that Super Dark Times evokes have a universality to them that decades later both repels us and draws us, unwillingly, back.
Watch the trailer for Super Dark Times: