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Don’t be fooled by that all-too-topical title: Kevin Phillips’ stylish American indie Super Dark Times is set two full decades ago, reminding us that teens were perfectly capable of screwing themselves up — and each other — before the internet, cellphones and social media came along to assist them in such activities.
A downbeat, intermittently violent study of friendship, guilt, suspicion and psychosis, this debut feature for Phillips and writing duo Ben Collins and Lukas Piotrowski feels much like a live Sundance competition candidate but actually premiered in the edgy Bright Future section of the Rotterdam Film Festival.
Strikingly shot, edited and scored, with convincing and vivid performances from a youthful cast, the picture loses its footing in the final stretch but should still take high rank among U.S. debuts of its ilk this year. Some enterprising distributor could plausibly give it a niche theatrical spin in the wake of what’s likely to be a well-received North American premiere, wherever that turns out to be.
Phillips, Collins and Piotrowski previously collaborated on the 11-minute, similarly YA-centric Too Cool for School, which was selected for the Critics’ Week at Cannes in 2015. Here they reunite with cinematographer Eli Born and editor Ed Yonaitis for a story which consciously echoes the likes of River’s Edge and Stand by Me in terms of plot, while also displaying thematic and stylistic debts to Donnie Darko and the small-town pictures of John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. There’s also a whiff of Super 8 and Stranger Things here and there, but Super Dark Times has sufficient distinctive flavor to avoid feeling excessively referential or derivative.
Front and center throughout is Zach (Owen Campbell), a smart high-schooler who’s been best buds with bespectacled, mop-haired neighbor Josh (Charlie Tahan) for most of their lives. The duo are horsing around in a park with two acquaintances when a combination of boyish exuberance, marijuana and a samurai sword yields bloodily fatal consequences for one of the group. The resulting cover-up places everyone and all relationships under severe strain, complicating Zach’s tentatively blooming romance with nice-girl Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino).
While Phillips and his writers, editor and DP are pretty much newcomers to the big screen — the helmer has many credits as a cinematographer of shorts, and has also made a mark in ad-land — Super Dark Times benefits from the veteran expertise of casting directors Susan Shopmaker and Lois J Drabkin. The pair have put together a strong ensemble of performers with a scattering of notable big- and small-screen credits between them: As a kid, Tahan scored a prominent role in I Am Legend, while Cappuccino, an appealing newcomer to features, played the young Jessica Jones in flashbacks.
The crux of the pic resides in tracing the rapidly shifting dynamics between individuals in their latter high-school years, exacerbated here by the bloodily extreme circumstances which upset more than one character’s mental equilibrium. Their heightened senses, particularly Zach’s, are conveyed by Born’s lushly atmospheric widescreen images — shot on digital using 35mm lenses — of this unidentified, cozy, woodsy/suburban small town in the Hudson Valley, plus Yonaitis‘ generally fluent, sometimes jarring edits and composer Ben Frost’s well-modulated score.
Period detail is unflashily evoked — a cassette Walkman is still the cutting edge of technology in December 1995, the specific timeframe identifiable by means of a televised Bill Clinton speech. Phillips, who was himself a teenager during this particular epoch, generally manages to keep a steady controlling hand on the downbeat shenanigans. Casual directorial flourishes abound in a film which occasionally risks becoming overwrought and self-indulgent, which perhaps contains one fantasy/dream sequence too many and which runs out of inspiration in the closing stages. But overall there’s more than enough going on here to mark Phillips and his key collaborators as names to watch in the overcrowded U.S. indie scene.
Production companies: Ways & Means, Neighborhood Watch
Cast: Owen Campbell, Charlie Tahan, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Max Talisman, Sawyer Barth, Amy Hargreaves, Adea Lennox
Director: Kevin Phillips
Screenwriters: Ben Collins, Luke Piotrowski
Producers: Richard Peete, Jett Steiger, Edward Parks
Executive producers: Niraj Bhatia, Dan Burks, William Hall, Cameron Lamb
Cinematographer: Eli Born
Production designer: Jasmine E. Ballou
Costume designer: Stephani Lewis
Editor: Ed Yonaitis
Composer: Ben Frost
Casting directors: Lois J Drabkin, Susan Shopmaker
Venue: Rotterdam Film Festival (Bright Future)
Sales: The Match Factory, Cologne, Germany
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