Early adolescence is a ripe time for cinema to explore. It is also a particularly popular one for films by first time directors. Why is that? When I met Kevin Phillips, who presented his feature debut Super Dark Times at the 2017 International Film Festival Rotterdam, he suggested that the reason may be autobiographical. “As you grow as an artist, you have a desire to understand the world around you.” In his opinion, it is easier for a director to do so by reflecting on thoughts from his own childhood.
Indeed, Super Dark Times has a further advantage: it is set during the summer of 1995, a time that seems to be just out of reach, particularly due to the notable absence of mobile phones and social media. Immediately, they seem to be more innocent times: this paradoxically makes the subsequent loss of innocence experienced by its young characters all the more shocking.
Super Dark Times revolves around the strong bond and brotherly friendship between Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan), which is tested by Zach’s blooming love interest for a local girl named Allison (Elizabeth Capuccino) and a certain, sudden bloody accident involving a samurai sword and marijuana.
Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski wrote the screenplay. They cleverly choose not to overplay any of its aspects. The film is coated in ambivalence (the ambivalence of the monster of Robin Wood’s theory of the “return of the repressed,” which forms the basis for some of the screenplay’s aspects and is also evident in the Tahan’s flawless timing): it is as witty, nostalgic and even funny as much as it is dramatic and sinister. This careful balance manifests itself visually on Campbell’s tire-eyed face, the look of one caught in a state of limbo, overwhelmed and struggling to cope with or even understand everything that is happening to him physically, emotionally, sexually and so on. Despite this, the film is notably best when it is at its darkest, perhaps because it shows a side to the teenage coming-of-age drama that we rarely otherwise get to see – indeed, Super Dark Thirty is not afraid to dig deeper than most other films of the kind.
Phillips, who has a prominent background in cinematography, shot the film on digital with 35mm lenses. The widescreen shots of the small town, surrounded by wilderness, do not only recall the dark atmospheres of the previous coming-of-age classic Stand By Me – they also offer great opportunity to document moments of sinister beauty through shots of grays, browns and greens stretching out namelessly on the horizon.
Much like Andrew Cividino’s Sleeping Giant, Super Dark Times is not undermined by the patronizing gaze of adults making a film about kids. Indeed, “play” in the movie is shown as serious business, in which the young characters test the bounds, and politics, of their own sexuality. Therefore, danger may lurk at every corner and may arise at any given moment during childish play. By doing so, the general message of the film may not so much be about becoming mature – as many reviews have pointed out – but rather about what maturity is and whether it is ever reached. – ★★★★
SUPER DARK TIMES || 2017, USA || Drama || Directed by – Kevin Phillips / Produced by – Richard Peete, Jeff Steiger, Edward Parks / Written by- Ben Phillips, Luke Piotrowski / Cinematography – Eli Born / Edited by – Ed Yonaitis / Music by – Ben Frost / Starring – Owen Campbell, Charlie Tahan, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Max Talisman, Sawyer Barth, Amy Hargreaves, Adea Lennox / Running time: 100 mins.