Set in the hazy era of the 1990s, the bond between a group of teenage boys is tested when they’re faced with the consequences of their actions in a nightmarish reality that leads the friends down different paths. The aftermath of accidental violence tears apart the boys and exemplifies the weight of vulnerability and plaguing fear of the future that every high school kid holds on their shoulders. Super Dark Times explores that idea of inner teenage conflict and friendship within this setting; those scared panicked feelings evolving from a situation with an unclear solution, unknown due to age. Relatable and understandable, this pushes the horror that plays out in front of the young boys’ eyes towards something even more haunting as they can’t fix what they have done. Paranoia and terror fuel the scared kids in a visually engaging landscape that, by the end of the film, doesn’t make up for the final arbitrary moments.
Kevin Phillips directional debut is visually impressive, and the cinematography (by Eli Born) captures the static isolated town that best friends Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) reside in, their restless boredom matching the dark-tones of the film and its monotonous town. Joined by younger student Charlie (Sawyer Barth) and a loudly irritating Daryl (Max Talisman), their lewd conversations about girls in their class and exaggerated fantasies about what they’d do to them mark them as typical pubescence school boys, wanting to seem bigger and better than their friends despite them all being the same awkward inexperienced kid inside. Phillips strays from an archetypal coming-of-age story, instead indicating with the gloomy lighting and unsettling opening sequence that these boys will not be facing their usual problems, such as how to talk to girls like classmate Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino) or masturbation. Instead they’ll be pushed into the plaguing darkness of a horror film, as Super Dark Times wants to explore the bond of school friendships (which can feel like the strongest bonds of all, at the time) when faced by real horrors.
The opening sequence sets this film up perfectly, introducing Allison as she intriguingly watches a dying deer that has leaped through the window of her high school and is laying in a pool of its own blood. The authorities involved decide to put it out of its suffering; something the audience must be subject too as well. This establishes Super Dark Times as a story that will explore three things: violence, an interest in the grim and gory, and a conflicted attitude to the suffering of another being. Throughout the film both Zach and Josh traverse these ideas as they face a version of the random events that take place here in the opening scene.
The first act of the film sets these ideas up well, and the characters solidly create that connection between audience and individual. With this bridge built, the second act becomes monstrously dark and teeth-gritting as teenage pain morphs into real pain, that feeling that parents wouldn’t understand becoming real when the boys are silenced by something criminally violent yet stupidly accidental. These possibilities are experimented with throughout the film, and the third act and final actions of each kid demonstrates their different coping mechanisms and the path the horrific event led them down. This is where the film lost me and all sense of its themes, as Phillips diverges from a complimenting coupling of horror and coming-of-age to just straight up horror, choosing to indulge itself as a slasher flick which loses all its substance as an emotionally evocative story. Zach and Josh become disconnected from their previous characterisations and the unnatural shift into their final arc moments is jarring and even cringey at times. The film just lost itself and its conclusion, ultimately spoiling the intriguingly-built story.
The cinematography is stunning, there’s no doubt, and the editing that draws focus to faces and interactions exemplifies the significance of those moments to growing up. The tone and setting of the entire film is perfectly gloomy and the opening sequence is unforgettably eerie. The potential for an amazing film is evident, and for Phillips’ full-length film directional debut this is impressive, but the drop and shift as the film concludes loses everything it created in the first place and becomes disappointing. I look forward to watching his future work, and seeing what else leading actors Campbell and Tahan have to offer as they fit well into the desolate and aimless world of Super Dark Times, but this time the themes got lost behind the want to create shock and violence in a finale that didn’t quite match up to the rest of the film.