The fecund coming-of-age story receives a genre-twisting injection of violence in debuting director Kevin Phillips’ alternately sensitive and gory “Super Dark Times.” Jarring in the way it jumps whole hog from a sincere, penetrating look at the nightmare of guilt into far more standard psycho territory, this teen drama about the repercussions of a tragic accident is so spot-on in its depiction of high school behavior that its shift to slasher mode creates disappointment. Still, it’s hard not to appreciate the astute ways the script captures the moment when carefree childhood turns into the loss of innocence. Visually striking, with a fine ear for teen dialogue among boys, and excellent performances (especially from Owen Campbell, fresh from Sundance kudos on “As You Are”), the film could make a moderate box office splash, with steadier returns from VOD.
The long shadow of “Stand by Me” will always haunt films about the confluence of childhood and death, though “Super Dark Times” largely ditches nostalgia for a decidedly darker turn, and not just because the 1990s suburban community where it takes place is awash in wood paneling and brown furniture. The film’s interest lies in the corrosive effects of guilt more than the shock of mortality, and where it works best is in the way it reveals the fragility of teenage security — gone in the blink of an eye.
Phillips instills a sense of unease from the very beginning, in a strikingly edited sequence that shows the aftermath of a stag that crashed through a school window, dying slowly on a classroom floor. As a policeman looks confusedly at the incongruous animal, the cop’s image reflected in the pool of blood, his partner stomps on the beast to end its suffering. The scene is disturbing without being sensationalized, inhabiting an ambiguous space between reality and nightmare, and in retrospect forms an appropriate introduction to the violence to come: As so often in movies, suburbia and high school offer only a façade of safety.
Best friends Zach (Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan, “The Harvest”) engage in classic teen boy conversation, full of silly comparisons (Silver Surfer vs. the Punisher), gross-out food dares, and ludicrous projections into hypothetical futures. Though they find obnoxious, foul-mouthed Daryl (Max Talisman) an annoying blowhard, they hang with him sometimes; when Josh pulls out his brother’s ninja sword, the three decide to take it to the woods and have fun slicing milk cartons with Charlie (Sawyer Barth), the younger brother of a classmate.
Remember the scene in “Boyhood” when Mason and his older acquaintances fool around with a ninja disc? It generates tension because you’re afraid something terrible will happen, but nothing does: Richard Linklater feels too much tenderness for his characters to put them through such tragedy. Although Phillips clearly loves some of his characters as well, they’re clearly not as safe — as evidenced when Josh accidentally kills Daryl with the sword. In a panic, the boys cover the body with leaves and ditch the sword, agreeing to keep quiet.
But maintaining a cool exterior isn’t easy for either Zach or Josh. The latter shuts down completely, locking himself in his room at home, while Zach struggles to keep a normal front even as the horror of what happened eats away at his very being. His warm, supportive single-mom Karen (Amy Hargreaves, “How He Fell in Love”) doesn’t really notice the change, but Zach’s entire world is crumbling.
One of the film’s best scenes sees Zach in his bedroom with Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), for whom he secretly holds a crush, when she makes clear her interest in him. But he’s desperately trying to cope with the nightmare he’s just witnessed, and quietly cries on her shoulder. Everything Zach could want is now within his grasp, yet his distress is so great that he can’t savor the moment, pushing him even further into emotional turmoil. Campbell’s superb performance is pitched beautifully as Zach struggles with inner maelstroms not least of which is the realization that the warmth and protection of home no longer offer safety from his sense of culpability and the fear of discovery.
Had the film kept on this track, exploring the ramifications of guilt and the loss of purity, it could have been an exemplary coming-of-age story notable for a nuanced understanding of teen trauma. Instead, co-scripters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski unexpectedly switch gears and opt for horror, slicing their way into genre territory. Fortunately, the characterizations are strong enough by this point to just about withstand the onslaught, though disappointment is inevitable.
Campbell’s standout work goes a significant way toward keeping sympathy for Zach high, as does Cappuccino’s fresh and nuanced presence as the girl (practically) next door. Camerawork uses classic framing that largely maintains a sense of restraint even when emotions are off-kilter, and Ed Yonaitis’ editing is well-calibrated in all scenes, emphasizing how every stimulus in Zach’s world now triggers his pain. The ’90s are largely evoked by production design (dig the clunky portable phones!) and a few songs from the era.