The first time we meet Zach and Josh, two high-schoolers and best friends who gets tangled up in violence, guilt, and psychosis in Super Dark Times, they're hanging out in the basement, assessing photos of girls in the yearbook and watching softcore porn through the bars on a blocked cable channel. The year is 1995, but it's little details like this that make the time stamp unnecessary. In our current age of high-speed internet and smartphones, they would troll through the Facebook or Instagram pages of their classmates or watch the limitless pornography that's only a couple clicks away. But now, these latchkey kids are squinting at the TV, occasionally catching glimpses of bodies, enough to pulse their imagination.
There are other distinct markers of the time, too, like idle games of Minesweeper and nunchucks and thick cordless phones with antennas jutting from the receiver. But it's important on a practical level to know that teenagers still had to communicate with each other in person or over landlines, and it's also important to acknowledge that director Kevin Phillips, in his debut, has evoked the feeling mid-'90s adolescence with tremendous care, like a memory recalled with vivid tactility. It may seem odd to think of a film set in the '90s as a period piece, but Super Dark Times has the ambience of coal-black Stand By Me, even as it's betrayed by a story that gradually steers into the ditch.
Before taking a gruesome turn that leads it deeper and deeper into the dark, the film follows Zach (Owen Campbell), Josh (Charlie Tahan), and a couple of other teenage boys as they tool around their upstate New York town on bikes. They stop at a convenience store to dare each other into trying dried squid. They stop at Josh's house, where he shows them his brother's room, which includes a stash of marijuana and a samurai sword. With his brother away on active duty, Josh agrees to take the sword to slice through milk cartons, but he gets in a fight with another kid and accidentally drives the blade through his throat. In a panic, Zach, Josh, and the other remaining boy cover the victim in leaves, chuck the sword down a well, and quietly walk away.
It's here when Super Dark Times gets interesting. There's a scramble to get their stories straight and cover up their involvement in the slaying, but mostly they struggle to come to terms with what they've done. Zach, the more outwardly sensitive of the two, can barely bring himself to speak to his longtime crush Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), but he cries on her shoulders. Josh doesn't come to school for a couple of days, despite the conspicuousness of his absence; when he returns, he immediately gets sent to the principal's office for calling his teacher the c-word. Violence and shame have poisoned their consciences and their friendship, and it's to the film's credit that their carelessness in covering up the incident isn't deemed as consequential as how they process it.
Yet the script, by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, goes wildly astray when it starts treating the boys' psychological stress as the grease that lines a slippery slope. When Super Dark Times makes the shift from somber coming-of-age film to out-and-out grisly thriller, its credibility as a character study withers away in the process. Perhaps the filmmakers felt there was some need to understand how teenage minds are warped by circumstances that can lead to violence, but getting from where Zach and especially Josh are in the beginning of the film to where they are at the end of it is more a leap than an evolution.
Still, for a first-time director, Phillips has an unusually strong handle on the finer arts of setting a mood and evoking time and place. Through his lens, an average town in upstate New York carries the gray, lonely, foreboding quality that seeps under his characters' skins just as much as the incident that sends them over the edge. Whatever the story's failings, his impression of teenage life in the mid-'90s lingers potently enough to forgive a little. His locale is alive with menace. Next time, maybe he'll get more persuasive material.