I am a sucker for a coming-of-age flick. Always have been. I remember being ten-years-old and weeping like a willow when Vada walked up to Thomas Jay’s casket in My Girl; or when Gordie had his breakdown in Stand By Me; or when Charlie hit the dance floor in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. That kind of thing just sets my cinematic ship sailing. And, while it’s difficult to classify Super Dark Times as a coming-of-age film, they share many themes and situations that feel right at home in that sub-genre, that is until they are bludgeoned to death. In truth, Super Dark Times is more like Mean Creek than anything else, with maybe a touch more of the macabre thrown in for added measure. It ended up reminding me of two works – the horror film I Am Not A Serial Killer from last year, and the Dean Koontz novel, “The Voice of the Night”. And, as of July, it’s one of my very favorite films of the year.
Like Koontz’ “The Voice of the Night”, the film tells the story of two best friends – Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan). Zach is the level-headed one- calm, cool and collected, who seems like he is probably always talking Josh down from some dramatic high. Josh is the more erratic of the two, losing his temper easily and prone to these sort of A.D.D. fits of energy. They seem like the perfect team. One day, Josh finds a samurai sword that belongs to his brother and they take it out to the park to cut milk cartons in half with a couple of other kids. After a tense situation with a fellow friend, Daryl (Max Talisman), one of the kids is accidentally killed, leading everyone involved to attempt to cover up the accident as best they can – they’re kids; they don’t know any better. In the aftermath, Zach struggles with the guilt while Josh goes from hiding away to suddenly acting in ways he never has before. And, as one bizarre incident leads to another, Zach begins to suspect his best friend might just be a monster.
But Super Dark Times isn’t just about the accident. This is also a film about first loves, Zach is pursued by a girl he has a crush on, Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), though always seems haunted by the spectre of what Josh did and what Josh might be doing. But how refreshing is that? The boy is actually being pursued by the girl, for the most part. We don’t see that a lot in film, particularly of late. The way director Kevin Phillips (working from a script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski) handles the back and forth between mystery/horror to teen romance is admirable, fitting both into this dreamlike sense of adolescence that carries through all the way to the end when any sense of fantasy is crushed by the cold hard grip of reality. And, being set in the early-90’s helps the film achieve a sort of bland weariness that fits both the decade and the picture like a glove.
What’s most remarkable about the film are the performances from Campbell and Tahan. Tahan is most known from his roles in films like Love is Strange and Wiener-Dog, but he has really grown up, and his once adorable youthfulness has shifted into a more haunting and striking stature, much like Max Records in I Am Not a Serial Killer. And Campbell has had a terrific year, between this and As You Are. Here, he really gets a chance to flesh out a full character going through a wide range of emotions while still maintaining this sense of teenage insecurity and angst that is all too familiar. He is convincing throughout. Both boys get an exceptionally strong third act to really take the relationship they spent the first two acts building, and put it to the test. I never knew where the film was going and that is a rarity. Every time I thought I had it figured out, the rug would be swept out from under me. And nothing makes me happier, as a movie lover, than falling flat on my ass via faulty expectations.
Special mention goes to production designer Jasmine Ballou Jones, who did a magnificent job of re-creating a time and place that is so ‘regular’ and just contemporary enough to be extremely difficult to pull off. That, along with well placed tracks from folks like The Cranberrys and The Cars, really add a texture to the picture, much like Matt Reeves did with his remake of Let the Right One In. Did it need to be set in the early-90’s? Maybe not, but kids back then acted much differently than they do now, and giving Zach and Josh access to cell phones and social media would have really relinquished a lot of the tension that is mined from one character needing to reach another character but having to run blocks and blocks to do so. In fact, much of what sets Super Dark Times apart is that sense of distance – where one person might only be a couple blocks away, but it feels like 1,000 miles.
And what a relief to find a film that doesn’t bog itself down with the typical high school tropes we’ve come to expect. I kept waiting for a ‘bully’ to emerge. Apart from one scene with some older kids, this film isn’t concerned with that. Zach and Josh are more introverted than the other kids, but they’re far from bullied and both seem reasonably accepted by their classmates. If anything, that is the one flaw in Super Dark Times: I’m not sure I entirely believed Josh’s transformation from Point A to Point B. Not having a concrete explanation might make the whole experience more unsettling, but I am not sure that fantastic third act was entirely earned. An extra five minutes to better explain that would have been welcomed by me. But I am also the person who complains endlessly when a horror remake feels the need to explain everything, thereby lessening any and all mystery of the character. I guess I want it when I want it and I don’t when I don’t and that might be unreasonable but I don’t really care.
But that really is a small quibble with what I consider to be a tight, involving, beautifully acted piece of a thriller. Super Dark Times takes a lot of the commonplace traits of a coming-of-age picture – first exposures to love and death, for example – and subverts them at every possible step. That’s what made it unpredictable and that’s what made it stand apart from the litany of horror films that really try to get into the minds of teenagers. Super Dark Times is smart enough to know that the mind of a teenager is an ever-changing thing, so looking for predictability there is like trying to find one particular marble in a barrel of marbles. It’s rare to find a film about kids that feels like a film about kids. It’s rare to find a third act that actually works. And, it’s rare to find a filmmaker who dares to not feel obligated to offer backstory and exposition to the change a character undergoes. I might have felt shorted by that, but it doesn’t mean I don’t admire the hell out of the director’s willingness to short me.