Super Dark Times (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): A dark, disturbing coming-of-age drama thriller

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“Super Dark Times” is a dark, disturbing coming-of-age drama which turns out to be more unnerving and compelling than expected. Set in a suburban area of New York State, the movie initially presents itself as a calm, realistic depiction of mundane American adolescent life during the 1990s, but then it becomes a stark, chilling thriller about how its two adolescent heroes get themselves mired in guilt and paranoia after one unfortunate incident which changes their life forever, and we come to brace ourselves as their circumstance becomes more fearful and gruesome later in the story.

After the quiet but striking opening scene which shows the aftermath of an unpleasant happening at a local high school, the movie shows us another usual day of its two adolescent heroes: Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan). When we see them for the first time, they are looking into their high school album just for killing their afternoon free time at Zach’s home, and they casually talk about which female student is more desirable, like any heterosexual boys would at their hormone-charged age.

They later get out of the house, and then they meet two boys they know: Daryl (Max Talisman) and Charlie (Sawyer Barth). While Charlie is a student of the other high school in their neighborhood, Daryl attends the same high school along with Zach and Josh. It is apparent that Daryl is your typical obnoxious jerk who often annoys others around him, but Zach and Josh hang around with him anyway because, well, there is nothing else to do besides that.

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After spending some time with Daryl and Charlie on a big abandoned bridge, Josh and Zach passes by a house where a girl named Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino) lives. It is clear that Zach has had a crush on her, but he still cannot express his feeling directly to her, and we get a small amusing moment when he attempts a small harmless frank in front of her house instead, which turns out to be a little more successful than he intended.

And then we get to know a bit about Zach’s relationship with his mother, who seems to live alone with her son in their cozy suburban house. Although it looks like she is mostly occupied with reading a romance novel unless she is working, she is always nice and gentle to her son, and they look fine together even though they do not interact much with each other.

So far, I have only described the first act of the movie, which carefully establishes its story and characters and then slowly lets us be immersed into the mundane suburban world inhabited by its characters. You will clearly see a trouble coming from the distance when the boys come across a big sword while killing their time in a private place belonging to Josh’s older brother, who has been absent since he joined the US Marine not so long ago. The boys soon go outside and have some fun together with that sword for a while, but then…

Naturally quite shocked and scared by a very serious trouble they inadvertently caused, the boys decide to cover it up as much as they can, but then they have to deal with its ramifications in one way or another. They just could ignore everything as nobody else has not yet found what they did, but Zach finds himself burdened by mounting guilt and worry everyday, and the movie often shifts itself to a more stylish mood for depicting his increasingly agitated state of mind, which is sometimes shaken by several Freudian nightmares reflecting his fear and desire.

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In case of Josh, he looks more unstable and disturbed than his friend. After some point later in the story, he begins to show rather disturbing signs, and Zach is unnerved by whatever is happening to his friend, who becomes a lot more distant to him than before. When another incident happens, Zach fears what may happen next, and we subsequently see him driven into sheer panic when his worst fear turns out to be true.

“Super Dark Times” is the first feature film directed by Kevin Phillips, who initially worked as a cinematographer and then directed several short films before making this movie. He and his cinematographer Eli Born did a superlative job of establishing the mundane but subtly tense and ominous atmosphere on the screen, and there are a number of impressive shots to be admired for skillful handling of lighting and scene composition. I also appreciate several authentic details of the background era of the movie, and I must confess that I cannot help but nostalgic when I saw a portable CD player during one brief scene.

The young main cast members of the movie are convincing in their unadorned natural performances. While Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan are believable in their casual interactions on the screen, Max Talisman and Sawyer Barth are also effective in their respective roles, and Elizabeth Cappuccino has a few tender scenes with Campbell as his character desperately seeks for some solace and comfort from her character.

“Super Dark Times”, which is currently available on Netflix, is not a pleasant film at all, but its dark drama is engaging and gripping to enough hold our attention, and it surely deserves to be compared with “River’s Edge” (1986) and “Mean Creek” (2004). This is one of the interesting debut films of last year, and I think you really should give a chance to this solid piece of work.

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