Intense Super Dark Times a Terrifying Teenage Drama
Teenagers Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) have been best friends for as long as they can remember. Sitting someplace in the middle between being a part of the High School in-crowd and a social outcast, they more or less get to go about their daily lives in some semblance of peace, free from the pressures of being in any one clique or having to face a bully’s violent insults as they make their way towards graduation. There is tension between them, though, lovely fellow student Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino) catching the eye of both boys.
But that’s not the worst of it. There’s a new danger, and it involves their other friends Daryl (Max Talisman) and Charlie (Sawyer Barth). While messing around with some of Josh’s older brother’s toys, including a razor-sharp samurai sword, something happens while the group is outside in the woods adjacent to town. This event adds a macabre pall over the pair’s friendship, and it’s one that has Zach particularly nervous. Things are going on in town that have him spooked, and now he’s concerned something is going to happen to Allison, and for all he knows Josh is the one right at the center of all the madness.
Even though it’s set in the early 1990s and concerns itself with a close-knit group of kids dealing with the indescribable, director Kevin Phillips’s feature-length debut Super Dark Times is not some erstwhile “Stranger Things” variation. It is instead an exceedingly dark, uncomfortably tense coming of age drama about teenagers making the worst decision imaginable only to discover the repercussions of keeping such indescribably terrifying secrets exorbitantly leads to madness and tragedy. This is a bleak, uncompromising drama that isn’t for the faint of heart or the easily offended, the place things end up at one no child of any age should ever have to experience.
It’s undeniably effective, Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski’s script doing a fine job of setting the stage by making sure Zach and Josh’s friendship is a real one, the bond they share immediately apparent right from the first off-color joke bantered back and forth between them. As part of that, there’s also real tension that runs between them, too, each knowing the other so well that it becomes virtually impossible to hide any of the emotions that might be feeling at any given time. I liked the fact that, where Zach feels compelled to give borderline outcast kids like Daryl and Charlie the benefit of friendly companionship, Josh isn’t so certain this is always a good idea. There is real tension here, neither quite believing what the other is seeing is real, all of which ends up helping inadvertently fuel the tragedy that will change the lives of all four teens forever.
I’m not as fond of the third act twist, and while I’m perfectly okay with the psychological chaos that sinks its teeth into one of the two boys, I’m not altogether certain the Halloween dynamics of it all suits the dramatic scenario Collins and Piotrowski have concocted. This moment of carnage feels forced, untidy, and while Phillips composes the sequences with laudable restraint and attention to detail, the switch from tightly wound catastrophic drama to full-blown high school-aged horror happens far too inelegantly and with too much rapidity for my contentment.
Even so, there is a refreshing candor to this film that’s wonderful. I was fascinated watching Zach attempt to navigate his way through a maze he played far too large a role in the creation of, his understanding of what his and Josh’s decision to keep a dreadful secret has unleashed immediately obvious. Additionally, relative newcomer Campbell, likely best known for extended arcs on “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Americans,” proves to be an intriguing talent worthy of keeping an eye on. He manages to give Zach a multidimensional complexity I found compelling, and whether he’s timidly waltzing towards romance with Allison or uncovering inconsistencies in Josh’s temperament he’d never taken note of before, the young actor soars.
Granted, the entire cast is solid, Tahan and Cappuccino particularly so. I also liked that the primary adults that are involved with this story, while requisitely clueless as to all it is their kids are doing, they’re all for the most part still concerned enough with their respective lives to have at least the faintest inklings that something might be wrong. It helps give things an extra layer of realism that helps make the third act transition a little easier to swallow, otherwise it’s fairly likely I might have ended up more on the angry side of frustrated which wasn’t a place I wanted to go. Super Dark Times might not earn its blood-soaked finale, but that doesn’t make what happens up to that point any less compelling, Phillips in the end proving himself to be a strong directorial talent worth keeping an eye on.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)