2017 | unrated (R equivalent for language, violence and sexuality) | starring Charlie Tahan, Owen Campbell, Elizabeth Cappuccino | directed by Kevin Phillips | 1hr 40mins |
Studio Pitch: A high school drama – with a samurai sword.
Halfway through Super Dark Times I realized that this first viewing was going to be a write-off. I immediately had to see it again. To pour over it’s period details, subtle characters beats and unanswered questions. As defining and assured a directorial debut as you can get, Kevin Phillips’ high school drama is long on somber atmosphere and short on Hollywood teen tropes. It has a couple of nit-pick flaws here and there, that we will get to, but I loved it too much for that to put a dent in this masterfully crafted firecracker of a film.
There are a handful of signposts that turn the movie into a 90s-dipped period piece. The cordless phones, Bill Clinton speeches, a great soundtrack and the coming-of-age revelation of Jamie Lee Curtis’ strip scene in True Lies. We meet our two leads, Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) watching scrambled porn – not unlike the way archetypical Hollywood teen comedy American Pie starts – and pouring through the hottest girls and teachers in the yearbook. No prom packs or embarrassing hijinks, we’re immediately confronted with teenage boys that look and talk like real teenage boys. It’s minute, it’s uncomfortable and it’s nerdy. While Super Dark Times will ultimately spin around something quirky, tragic and cinematic, at core it’s a story about two life-long friends growing apart and ultimately into conflict. A conflict that involves a samurai sword, an accidental death of one of their classmates and a girl named Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino, Jessica Jones) who both Zach and Josh like in different ways. At more than one point the film feels like a pre-twist Fight Club where friendship between guys sours into jealousy and paranoia – and I don’t compare things to Fight Club lightly.
Once one of their friends is killed another movie would have wound this story through a Cohen brother-esque series of cover-ups and mistakes. Instead, Dark backs off into inner guilt and a crumbling relationship. It’s a wonderfully warm film with a loving relationship between Zach and his single-mother who comforts him with a stomach ache and gets excited when a girl is on the phone. It’s portrayal of high school is equally cold, a hierarchy where those that have girlfriends or access to pot are bolstered in popularity and power. A life that is shattered in the beginning by a dead deer that’s burst through a window and left streaks of blood all over the school. Everything in the lives of these characters is bubbling up on the verge of exploding into violence, not just in their persona lives, but the pre-Columbine world around them. I’m not sure if it’s Phillips’ statement but one of the many ways you can interpret Dark is as an examination of this hormone-driven pressure cooker. By eliminating guns from the equation and replacing the instrument with a weapon from feudal Japan he’s able to examine how this psychosis evolves in a way that more direct Columbine-inspired school violence examinations like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant are too detached from the teenage experience to do.
But like I said, that’s one interpretation. Phillips has cleverly constructed a movie that can be looked at through multiple lenses. I delighted in pouring over some of it’s shots – particularly it’s ending – to tease out what it was saying. Can you love a movie that isn’t perfect? Can it still be kind of a masterpiece? Absolutely. And in fairness Super Dark Times isn’t quite perfect. It escalates into more pronounced genre territory in the third act. The climax is thrilling and the payoff is satisfying, but the leap isn’t quite smooth. I really enjoyed both the first 2/3rds and it’s last 3rd in different ways but there are a few frames missing to get there. It’s the one place where Phillips desire to be oblique confuses things instead of creates a puzzle to solve. This mystery does have a solution but it doesn’t quite give us all the clues to get there. In another movie it would have been enough, but here it stands out because the rest of Super Dark Times is so uniquely realized.
A somber slow-burn antithesis to Hollywood high school movies that builds to a galloping pace, Super Dark Times has a foot in several different genre squares, weaving them into a mesmerizing drama of friendship, young crushes and blood. Now this is a movie. It’s oblique enough to spark debate and generates a crowd-pleasing buzz in just the right spots. I can’t wait to see what Phillips does next (even if he’s the next indie director to get tapped for a superhero film). One of the best movies of the year and one of the best teenage movies in a long time.