Most boys go through “let’s play with weapons” stage. It’s usually in those years from 13-17 when all the masculine gender roles need to be checked off the box so that your friends and you can convince yourself of how cool you are. But what happens if something goes horribly wrong? What happens if the emotions and affirmations you’re exploring end up “accidentally” on the wrong end of human skin? This is what this very interesting thriller/drama sets out to examine. Super Dark Times is the very strong feature debut from director Kevin Phillips about a tight-knit group of high school buddies who suddenly encounter some deadly serious adult decisions to make. Built upon a core ensemble cast of extraordinary young actors, the story takes a back seat to the character interaction and emotional mining. Yes, of course, something “big” happens, and it’s horrible. But far more troubling is what comes after. The way underdeveloped minds react to trauma can be a very disconcerting thing, and tough to pull off in a movie. Fortunately, these filmmakers got the job done and the result is an execution which will leave you feeling less comfortable than before you entered the theater.
The first act of the film doesn’t really portend the coming events. What it does instead is invite you to be part of the gang, hang out with the kids whose story this is within the film. In a very similar way that the uber-popular Stranger Things seduced Netflix audiences last year, Super Dark Times puts the viewer in the intimate setting of pals goofing around at school and after the last bell rings. They bike around town, get into confrontations, do stuff they shouldn’t be doing, and all the while, you really get to know them, even feel very comfortable in their circle. The heightened naturalistic performances evoke an organic connection, something many of us recall from our youth. Make no mistake – these actors are far more convincing than the Stranger Things kids. They have the advantage of age (both cast and on-screen characters are in fact older) as well as direction with a different sensibility. There are no supernatural happenings in this one. There’s no 80’s nostalgia, no government conspiracies, no nods to geek culture, or any other far out elements. What we do have is very, very real. It’s our world. This surely has happened in some neighborhood. It’s a humanistic touch the director tucks into every corner of his process and the results are very moving.
While a sort of mystery does brew as the story moves on – with a surprisingly more shocking ending than one may expect – the draw here is the focus on how sudden life-altering experiences impact the minds of children entering young adulthood. The lingering horror tropes become almost a welcome distraction from the tension generated by immature confusion. You almost feel seasick in empathy as overwhelming responsibility is met with insufficient response. All the dopey, carefree existence of that time of life gets eclipsed in a hurry and it’s all handled delicately on screen. It’s a different look at violence and fear than what the usual gang of exploitation flicks serve up. More accurately, it’s a drama thinly disguised as a suspense piece. And don’t expect easy characters and nifty resolutions. Viewers will not walk away with an obvious hero or villain. Lots of terrible mistakes are made by the characters and it’s hard to fully like or condemn any of them. Expect instead a study on how what we do – and what we choose not to do – define us in ways far more deeply than we ourselves can know.