The boys in Kevin Phillips’s feature-length directorial debut, Super Dark Times, a coming-of-age story that unexpectedly transforms into a serial-killer thriller, engage in realistic adolescent attitudinizing. In between riding bikes down tree-lined residential streets, they discuss masturbation schedules, mock their male classmates and assess how hot the girls are, even the female teachers, and debate who would be worth having sex with even if you had to do it in front of the whole student body. These all feel like ways that awkward young men would kill time when they don’t yet have access to drugs or booze.
But then an attempt to add a little weed smoking into their lives leads to some gory violence. Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan), longtime best friends, sometimes hang out with other guys, like the obnoxious Daryl (Max Talisman) and middle-schooler Charlie (Sawyer Barth), when they’ve got nothing better to do after school and before dinner. They wander around their picturesque hometown, sometimes stopping at each other’s homes. One afternoon, two of the boys get into an argument about the discovery of an enlisted older brother’s left-behind stash, after which words carry over to a field and things escalate during literal swordplay to accidental murder.
The bloodletting bursts into Super Dark Times as shockingly as it would the character’s lives, like a buck through a classroom window. (The film opens with shots of an empty, blood-soaked high school, the aftermath of just such an incident—and not the school shooting the sequence at first suggests—a perfect mood setter and foreshadowing for the carnage to come.) But the violence also emerges organically from their teenage posturing, making it seem hauntingly plausible, even if you can also spot how it depends on screenwriter contrivance. The three survivors help cover up the crime, and the rest of the film deals with the emotional fallout. The characters’ immaturity is exposed and amplified by the circumstances, revealing that, of course, these teens aren’t old enough to remotely deal with this sort of thing.
One boy copes by coldly forgetting; another by being emotionally needy and weird with the girl, Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), he likes; and the last by killing again, taking vengeance on various bullies and girls who rejected him. Beepers, Microsoft Minesweeper, and Walkmans and Discmans set the film in the 1990s, before Columbine, when it would have been easier for teachers, classmates, and parents to ignore the warning signs that a misfit was on the brink of becoming a murderer. As such, despite the film’s title, these times don’t seem particularly darker than those just before or since. The pre-9/11 Clinton years were actually kind of super bright times, relatively speaking, for the peace and prosperity—the last light before a long sunset.
The brightest part of the film is its cleanly composed visuals. Phillips has more than a decade of experience as a cinematographer, and it shows in his commitment to the film’s aesthetic, from DP Eli Born’s sleek compositions to the refined use of slow-motion and Ed Yonaitis’s sophisticated editing, reusing shots in different contexts to create new emotional and intellectual connections. Phillips is a strong filmmaker, but he’s working from a rickety screenplay, by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski. Its second half focuses almost entirely on the kid who’s coping by moping around, so the mostly off-screen transformation of a typical teen into a serial killer isn’t credible, compared to the film’s portrait of idle suburban adolescence. But together the filmmakers build a lot of tension leading to the climax, which depicts just how out of hand things involving teenagers left to stew in their own feelings can get.