The atmosphere of Super Dark Times, the aptly titled film debut of director Kevin Phillips, is the cinematic equivalent of being shoved into a lake with cinder blocks tied to your feet. It’s a shockwave to the senses of the viewer, and in spite of us swimming towards the reflection of light on the water, its bleakness will never allow us to reach the surface.
Super Dark Times follows best friends Zach and Josh as they’re involved in a fatal accident, and similarly to the excellent indie drama Mean Creek, Phillips’ film draws its realistic heaviness from that sudden, life-altering event among young teenagers. The script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski confidently showcases an understanding of teen boys, the way they speak, and the manner in which they react to situational tension. The events of the film, especially the small moments between characters, are not neat and tidy plot devices- they feel real. This element provides Super Dark Times with an unshakable rawness that truly makes it one of 2017’s most unforgettable films.
Adding to this are the powerful performances by Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan as Zach and Josh, respectively. Zach and Josh are normal teenage boys who are content with playing video games, riding bikes, and talking about their lust for girls that go to their school. They are deer in the headlights of trauma, and the deadly moment at the heart of the film sets both of them on vastly different paths through grief.
As Zach, Owen Campbell possesses a charm that can’t be fully diminished even by the film’s bleakness. Zach is attempting to balance the horrific headspace of the event amidst his first teen love and the loss of youthful innocence. Campbell particularly shines in the moments that Zach confronts these changes, whether it’s with Josh, his mother, or silently among himself.
Josh’s path, however, takes a much darker turn. Being directly responsible for the accident, he cannot escape his own mind, resulting in a maddening descent into mental instability. Charlie Tahan brings requisite mood to a role that could have easily fallen victim to character cliches, instead wearing his inner demons and pain in a way that elicits both sympathy and hesitation from the viewer.
Kevin Phillips directs Super Dark Times with such confident understanding of the story and characters that it’s shocking to think that this is his first film behind the camera. Along with the cinematography by Eli Born, Phillips has achieved a tone that services the melancholy of youth on the cusp of adulthood. Though it feels like two separate films at times- one a character study and an exploration of grief, the other a teen slasher- Phillips manages to make it all seem authentic. Super Dark Times is a remarkable feature debut, and it’s one that shouldn’t be missed.
For more on Super Dark Times, you can also check out our interview with writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski: