“My power is untethered and ever-growing.”
The high school crime genre is a tough one to crack. Is it supposed to be a study of adolescence and the romance and self-discovery within or should the focus be on a crime? There’s a gray area that few have cracked, arguably not since Rian Johnson’s Brick in 2005.
Kevin Phillips’ Super Dark Times has half of that code figured out thanks to a brooding, all too real atmosphere. It’s rare for a debut to have such success at world-building but that’s exactly where Phillips succeeds, attaching his camera to a reality that’s familiar enough to place its audience right in the musty basement with Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan).
The two best friends are on the couch looking at a yearbook, ranking their school’s girls and too hot for class teachers as only heard in high school locker rooms. These aren’t jocks, though, they’re what you’d expect the Stranger Things kids to be in a couple years. Admittedly, the comparison is partly because of the time period as Phillips pays meticulous attention to the setting of a character getting a separate phone line in her room to the cutouts of underwear models in Josh’s brother’s room.
It truly evokes the past like few films do without romanticization. There are few music cues and pop culture references are kept a minimum all together, the period is just a vehicle to the characters’ mindsets and communication was more intimate. Even phone calls were more physically connected with landlines. You had to know numbers and addresses instead of pressing a touchscreen, making the urgency and intimacy of every moment that much more pressing for Zach when confronting his feelings for Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), one of the girls he and Josh fawn over in the beginning.
But as stated, this is about a crime, it’s not just about adolescent fears of intimacy. Everything spirals out of control when Josh has a violent outburst with one of his and Zach’s new friends, Daryl (Max Talisman) who steals some weed from Josh’s brother and walks away with his authentic sword during the spat. And now that I said, sword, you can see where this goes. If you didn’t fill in the blank, Daryl ends up dead being stabbed in the jugular.
Even though it wasn’t directly anyone’s fault, the group spirals into a panic and agrees to cover it up and let Daryl become a missing person case- hiding all evidence and making it a crime scene in the process, failing to report the incident and holds up a mirror to youth’s idea of accountability being more feared than action.
This is the jumping off point where two paths emerge. Naturally, Zach and Josh each take a different route with the latter falling into a darker place. The more Zach begins to regret their decisions, everyone’s lives are put at greater risk of Josh becoming a loner Zach fears is a threat to anyone associated with the group. And the envious but certainly confusing relationship he develops with Allison is all the more motive for Josh to do something violent on purpose after drawing first blood.
But it’s after the accident with Darryl that interest slowly dies down, virtually leaving a 30-minute gap between acts. There’s most empty exposition in between that follows too many familiar beats of the concerned parent, lost teenage innocence, and the regular insecurities and annoying quirks in late pubescence.
By the time the dark, jaw-dropping final act begins, it’s too late to the whole film around to reach the peaks found in the first couple of acts thanks to the sympathetic and traumatic turns from its two leads.
There’s a lot to appreciate, especially how well it remixes the all too referenced Stand By Me and manages to be a non-nostalgic period piece. But there’s ultimately too much missing in between acts thanks a scattered focus to be completely successful.