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Super Dark Times
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by Jay Seaver

"Surviving adolescence intact is no small challenge."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I coincidentally went to my twenty-five-year high-school reunion the weekend before seeing "Super Dark Times", spending some time laughing at friends' stories about events that could have gone wrong in similarly horrific ways but never did, and while that doesn't quite line my timeline up with this 1990s-set story, it had me a little more open to this sort of throwback than I usually am. Which is good, because though it's got a few bumps toward the end, I'd hate to dismiss a pretty good movie because I'm usually more interested in the present.

Like those of us reuniting much later, Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) are flipping through their junior high yearbook one afternoon while trying to get a scrambled cable channel to come in, talking about the girls in their class. It's December in their small Northeastern town without a whole lot to do, so they, along with the really obnoxious classmate Daryl (Max Talisman) and still-in-8th-grade Charlie (Sawyer Barth) wind up going through Josh's older brother's stuff, finding both a bag of weed and a sword, choosing the wrong item to screw around with, as a stupid fight leaves them with a dead body to cover up. Zach maybe doesn't have as much reason to feel guilty as the rest, but still breaks a hand punching a wall while disposing of evidence. Heck of an emotional place to be in when Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), maybe the cutest girl in that yearbook, starts to take some interest in him.

The audience has seen her before that, one of the teenagers gawking staring in the cafeteria at a deer that burst through a classroom window and made it that far before collapsing from its injuries. It's a great little opener, establishing a suburban environment that's starting to feel a chill, visually establishing the idea of change with a sharp shift in perspective from being outside looking in to being inside looking out, and focusing on the silent, pained look on the faces of the sheriff's deputies as they realize that there's no better solution than putting the poor beast down. It's a precursor to the other sudden, stupid death(s) that will soon hit the school and the similar helplessness people feel, but it's worth noting that Allison doesn't look away while everyone else is being squeamish. It's a nice subconscious first impression to make when she's not going to be injected into the boys' story as more than a fantasy until later.

Those guys, as it turns out, are believable enough to be cringe-worthy, reminding the older guys in the audience that, yeah, you probably did swear every other word while talking crap about girls but still pretty much being children worried about after-school snacks as much as anything else at that age. They round into shape impressively as the film goes on, though: Charlie Tahan's Josh isn't just a generic nerdy kid, but fairly specifically the middle child between two unseen siblings - an older brother in the Marines that he idolizes despite signs he may not deserve it and a prodigy who gets more of their parents' attention - and it brings a lot of nuance to a character who might initially rub one the wrong way, and Tahan nails just how shaken he is in the aftermath of the accident as well as how it can scab over. Owen Campbell's Zach is easier to like at first, and that's not really a mask; Zach's a good kid and Campbell does a nice job of showing just how lost he is in situations that he figures good kids really shouldn't get into, whether it's hiding a body or seeing his peers passing around a joint. He's charmingly not cool without pushing too far in the other direction. It makes him a fun match with Elizabeth Cappuccino's Allison, who is sneakily funny and not entirely what he imagines her to be but just enough more mature than the boys her age to see something in Zach but not be wise about it.

Amy Hargreaves, meanwhile, is not a kid but a fine supporting player as Zach's mother - these "kids find trouble" movies seldom have great spots for parents, but Hargreave's mom is kind of great, busy at work but available and helpful when she's needed, able to balance the sort of worry that might embarrass a kid with being generally a fun addition to a scene. She explains a lot about Zach's basic decency without the filmmakers having to make too much a point of it, and doesn't get subjected to a bunch of hot/cool-mom jokes even though that's something a lot of movies would go for.

If the script by Ben Collins & Luke Piotrowski lacks anything, it's something to really kick things into high gear for the back half. It's probably believable that things would happen at least in part because Zach starts seeing ties between likely-unrelated events because this thing looms so large in his mind that everything else must be connected, but director Kevin Phillips has a bit of a hard time selling it to the audience enough so that when there is actual danger, it feels like the logical consequence of what's happened up until that point. That doesn't stop them from giving the audience a very spiffy climax, though - without needing the characters to do anything a viewer wouldn't buy from the average 15-year-old, it's still a battle between a kid's fundamental desire to do the right thing and his realization that you can do wrong in big ways and get away with it with life-and-death stakes.

Audiences may squirm a little bit at both the realism and stretches that the movie takes to get there, but when the filmmakers hit that target, they hit it square, and without an excess of either cynicism or nostalgia. It's the sort of thing you hope your high-school adventures will help you figure out, though hopefully with more people around for the reunion.

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originally posted: 07/16/17 02:28:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2017 Fantastic Fest series, click here.

User Comments

3/12/18 Langano Had potential but I didn't buy the character turn. 2 stars
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