What a great title we have in Super Dark Times, brought to us by first-time director Kevin Phillips from an original screenplay by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski. The film capitalizes on some of our collective, marketable nostalgia for bygone eras. We saw this phenomenon in last year's Netflix series Stranger Things (Indiana, 1980s) and this summer's indie Landline (Manhattan, 1995). On its surface, Super Dark Times reminds me most of the Stephen King reboot, It (currently back at No. 1 at the box office), which features a gang of tweens in 1980s Maine.
I'd heard a lot of promising rumors about Super Dark Times, set comfortably in the mid 1990s, during the economic boon of Bill Clinton, before everything became terrible in the wake of Columbine and 9/11. In the end, the movie came through on its promises, but I'm not gonna lie—the first 20 minutes had me worried. To quote Annie Wilkes from Misery: "The swearing, Paul." As in, I know that's how teenagers talk, but do we have to be so literal? Why so goddamn much of it?
Chief among the kids are high school sophomore Zach (Owen Campbell) and his best friend Josh (Charlie Tahan). Later, they get mixed up with an archetypal fat kid named Daryl (Max Talisman) and his 8th grade friend, Charlie (Sawyer Barth). There's a pretty girl named Allison on the periphery (Elizabeth Cappuccino) and, of course, a gaggle of bullies who wait around on street corners for the precious chance to torture our heroes. Are these clichés or foundational storytelling elements? It all depends on how you use them.
Without giving too much away, here are the basics: It's fall in a sleepy, upstate New York community, where kids ride bikes, stand perilously on bridges and raid liquor cabinets in the unsupervised twilight between when school ends and parents return from work. (And how beautifully shot these autumn scenes are!) Josh's older brother joined the Marines and left behind a treasure trove of pornography, stale marijuana and a really sharp samurai sword. Introduce a weapon, and now the rest of the movie hinges on the classic question, "What could go wrong?"
Much like It, Super Dark Times features teenage naivety already in progress, only to have that innocence interrupted by a series of violent, life-altering events. But It is a garbage movie because it's beholden to too many masters. The filmmakers had to be faithful to fans of the book, feature kids doing dark shit (but not too dark) and, all the while, cast a wide enough net to yield a return on its big-budget investment. Super Dark Times deftly sidesteps all of those pitfalls, and instead gives us a perverse and strange exploration of real horror, via the unsteady, ill-equipped perspective of doltish teenagers. (Remember, this is high school carnage before we were used to it.)
The sexuality in Super Dark Times stacks on top of the violence awkwardly, and in inconvenient ways. For Zach, his feelings of guilt and longing are inextricably linked, and lord knows what's going on in Josh's head. The movie features young people, but don't let that confuse you; this isn't written for a YA demographic. That doesn't preclude intelligent teenagers from getting the gist. At its heart, though, Super Dark Times works best for a 30-something audience who remembers what life was like before and are mired by the truth that we can never return.
Super Dark Times screens as part of the Montana Film Festival at the Roxy Sat., Oct. 7, at 9 PM. This screening is free. Visit theroxytheater.org for more info on festival passes.