Directed by Kevin Phillips
There’s something unsettling about your teenage years, at least while you’re in them. There have been many a film made about such a time, seen through a nostalgic lens, but Super Dark Times is not one of those films. It’s highly in the moment, moving with every dramatic whim perceived by its high school protagonists. They don’t have the perspective to properly navigate some of these highs and lows, and neither do we as the audience.
Granted, these highs and lows concern an accidental death in the first act. Like in Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park this is a movie filled with melancholy, tenderness and doom. We understand the characters’ anxiety because of the plot, but the emotion conveyed has more to do with, I think, just what it feels like to be a raw, unformed, and in some cases untested young adult.
The movie juxtaposes the sudden violence which got one character killed with a sort of sexual repression. The two main characters here are Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan), and when we meet them they lust over female classmates in their yearbook. We then follow them through other very teenage-sounding after school conversations that orbit masturbation, pornography and a classmate with whom they are both infatuated.
When a fight leads to the accidental death of a friend named Daryl, both Zach and Josh retreat to within themselves. While Josh grows more melancholic, Zach becomes paranoid. At the same time, ironically enough, he starts to receive visits from classmate Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino). She is the one with whom he is so infatuated, and she walks into his life as if out of thin air.
The fact that she pines so unabashedly for him seems purposefully fantastical, just to contrast with the nightmare of the recent fight which saw Daryl killed. It’s possibly the best and worst moments of his life, though of course the death deeply affects him and keeps him at a distance from Allison. She will behave with him in ways quite moving, tender and wholesome and yet they feel unbelievable. It’s an earnest affection in the moment, but within the context of the story and what we know about their previous (lack of a) relationship, it is all the more bewildering.
And in those respective heightened moments there is a parallel between death and sexual intimacy. It might be that I’m reading too far into this, but the movie plays on sexual imagery and allusions repeatedly throughout the film, much in the way teenage boys do in casual conversation. It comes up around every corner, even as the story grows much darker, and in one strange midday dream, Zach fantasizes about sleeping with Allison in the same spot in which they buried their friend.
This wouldn’t be the first time a disturbing high school movie compared violence with sex. It’s in Paranoid Park too, with the main character grappling with an event which turns out to have been an accidental death, spliced in with scenes of his first real romantic relationship. In both ways he is transforming into something, maybe just adulthood. And in so many stories, even just the structure of general storytelling, there is a thematic death before passing onto the next stage in life.
So maybe this is all just a coming of age story and nothing more. It is certainly allegorical in this way, and yet the movie plays with the idea of fantasy, imagination and fever dreams in such a way that by drawing attention to the possibility that some of this isn’t real, it suggests that some other part of it is. Am I talking out of my ass?
It seems to me that if this were all some kind of coming of age parable it would be played straight, following the rules of its own reality so that in the end we could take a step back and re-contextualize it. But since Zach’s paranoia introduces the idea that his fears that Josh has developed some kind of bloodlust (following accidentally killing Daryl), the movie itself draws attention to what’s real and what’s not, putting it right there at the surface. This central question, about whether or not he is a reliable narrator, instead becomes a plot question rather than something more thematic or maybe even philosophical.
And because of that the third act is more genre-y and thriller-y than I think it needs to be. Zach is certain that Josh is about to kill two specific people, because he believes that when Josh accidentally killed Daryl, he grew more unstable and is now out to kill more people. It doesn’t exactly make sense, and that’s why it seems more than possible that this is all Zach’s paranoid fever dream.
Which is fine, because it’s the payoff of a long simmering mood and sense of dread, but it’s the simmering which works so well, not the explosion near the end.
But all in all this is, I think, one hell of a movie. It’s tense and disturbed but full of heart and tender moments that are, well kind of shockingly tender. The characters are quite, anxious and convey so much with little to no dialogue.
Man I’m just kind of in awe of this movie. It feels so self-assured and grounded in a strange kind of realism. It’s like a Stephen King novel come to life, maybe Stand By Me or It. There’s Stranger Things mixed in there and the aforementioned Paranoid Park. It’s a story set in a cinematic world, one that because of the nature of filmmaking and closing down streets highlights the lack of people. It’s empty, foggy, full of echoes and maybe even ghosts. It’s moody, like the town itself is in a funk, and it all works so well to be of a single piece.
Maybe there’s stuff here to critique, whether it be the male gaze, entitlement, what have you, but I think that contributes to the darkness. It’s a dark movie, maybe indulgent or self-obsessed, but it is firmly set in the world of teenagers.
Also, just watching stoned teenagers wield sharp objects, even when they’re joking around, is enough to terrify me.
Up Next: King Kong (1933), The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), Godzilla (1954)