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SUPER DARK TIMES is a Pre-Internet Thriller with a Teenage Heart (Fantasia Review)

If you give a machine the right fuel, it’ll run smooth as you need it to. If you pour, say, sour milk into your car’s tank, bad things are gonna happen. Super Dark Times is an exploration of what happens when you add the wrong fuel.

The debut feature from director Kevin Phillips starts at Linklater and evolves into Saulnier, introducing us first to best friends hanging out, shooting the shit about teenage conversation classics like which of their high school classmates they most want to have sex with while staticky VHS porn tries futilely to clear up on a TV screen. Josh (Charlie Tahan) is shaggy-haired, long-fingered and over-confident in his virginity. Zach (Owen Campbell) feels weird about vocalizing crass sexual desire for Allison (Elizabeth Cappucino) because they hang out sometimes. She’s real to him. A fantasy to Josh.

Their love for one another is genuine and sweet, and their conflicting status on the median between Forever Alone and the cool kids table bubbles underneath the surface. It’s no surprise that there are bullies, or that they kill time with a classmate they hate (the Farva-esque Daryl, played by Max Talisman) and a hanger-on eighth grader (Charlie, played by Sawyer Barth). No surprise they ride their bikes everywhere, including an isolated forest, where they slice milk cartons in half with Josh’s older brother’s samurai sword.

Super Dark Times

It’s a good time, until Daryl picks a fight, and the samurai sword accidentally gets lodged in his throat. In an age before AIM (read: way, way before Facebook), the kids panic, and leave Daryl’s body under a pile of leaves and the sword down an animal hole.

This is the sour milk in their teenage engines.

The meat of the film allows us to stalk Josh and Zach as they spiral out from trauma and guilt. Each deals with it in a different, despairing way, augmented by all the normal teenage nonsense that these almost-nerds struggle to navigate on a good day. As it progresses, Super Dark Times adds weights to already-strained systems, injuring their relationship to each other and threatening all others. In that time, Josh turns to his mother Karen (Amy Hargreaves), who is, like Hargreaves’ character in 13 Reasons Why, a concerned, thoughtful, ultimately powerless parent.

Super Dark Times Cappucinno

The tension and danger of destruction offers an engaging counterpoint to the early sequences of carefree, youthful immortality. High school problems seem life or death until you get the latter up close. Tahan (who plays the young Scarecrow on Gotham) and Campbell shoulder the tension of the film with skill beyond their years. Both ground the film in a naturalistic realism so much so that I would be surprised to find out they weren’t friends in real life. Their nuance and intensity also elevates a taut script (from Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski) intent on damaging their characters in different ways. Just as he decides to cover up an accidental death, Zach opens his eyes to budding young interest from Allison. Cappucino is also a sharp, capable actor who makes Allison a fuller character than the script does. She’s sweet and thankfully not demure in the way a lot of YA makes its young women, and Cappucino adds layers to the girl closest to the edge of the storm. Meanwhile, Josh discovers a confidence and power he didn’t know he possessed.

The film stumbles a bit toward the end with character actions that strain belief just enough to stick out and a shaky balance on where the focus of the story moves. The early promise of the movie shifts into routine thriller territory, which is a shame. The exploration of teenage life under the pressure of an impossible secret is more interesting than where that angst takes them. The climax is unfortunately muddled and jumpy, even a bit confusing. And the credits roll before a handful of threads get tied.

Still, Super Dark Times is a worthy eye on adolescent trauma, loneliness, and envy. There’s also an undercurrent theme of sexuality–displayed in the opening scene, in Zach’s disturbed dreams, and more–that deserves its own, longer exploration.

Because of the nostalgia bomb of answering machines and the bike-peddling foursome, comparisons to Stranger Things will fly, but I like to think of it more as Stand By Me where the kids provide their own body.

The bottom line? Super Dark Times is a worthy, tightly realized thriller of young lives that’s better when it’s thinking deeply than when it builds with stock blueprints.

It should hit theaters sometime this year.

3.5 out of 5 leaf-covered burritos


Image: Higher Content

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