Super Dark Times (2017)
Starring Owen Campbell, Charlie Tahan, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Amy Hargreaves
Directed by Kevin Phillips
There may be no faster rising commodity in the digital age than nostalgia. As our access to information makes the future increasingly uncertain and frightening, more and more people are finding comfort hiding under the blanket of the past. From political campaigns to hit television shows and movies, trading in happy memories of the “good old days” is now a tried and true method of engaging an audience. By reviving old favorites and creating new shows like “Stranger Things” that play like “greatest hits” montages, “What Once Was” is becoming a popular destination for audiences to visit.
In this rush to feel safe in the warm embrace of the familiar, however, it can be easy to forget that the past wasn’t always such a romantic place.
Super Dark Times trades in a more truthful kind of nostalgia. It eschews the saccharine safe filter so often placed on the past and opts to show things how they truly were, warts and all. Its world is one of latch-key kids and absentee fathers, of broken homes with unsupervised children where pain could fester unnoticed by harried parents stretched beyond their limits. Where the taste of spoiled promises had just started to turn our collective stomachs and the warbled cries of disaffected youth rang hollow amid our seeming opulence. Super Dark Times takes place in the 90’s.
This tale of two friends trapped in the consequence of accidental tragedy might not take place in the 90’s most people remember, but for some of us it will ring all too true. As we watch these poor children make terrible choice after terrible choice, some of us will remember just how persuasive the keen edge of loneliness was when it brushed against our throats. How it distorted our perceptions and caused us to distrust the loved ones that stood in our periphery. How the spectre of what we were supposed to be haunted the reality of who we were so effectively that, in order to gain some measure of control, we resorted to drastic acts to prove we could solve all our problems alone.
Freshman director, and former cinematographer, Kevin Phillips captures this specific time and feeling perfectly. His use of a muted color palette as well as the fall setting infuses the film with a pervading malaise that creeps into your brain, leaving you as unsettled as the main characters. As the stakes are raised and the paranoia deepens, he never allows the viewer to feel like they have a handle on what is going on. He obscures important details so that with each twist of the plot you feel the ground beneath you slowly give way until you are eventually free falling, hoping for safe purchase. There is a brutal authenticity to this film that stays with you long after it’s over, and Philips displays an almost Hitchcockian ability to subvert your expectations, leading to an ending that will shock you at its inevitability.
For their part, screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski fully subscribe to the “show don’t tell” mentality. This is a film that will reward repeat viewings as pivotal parts of the plot are hidden in the characters’ surroundings and not explicitly expressed to the viewer. In this way the film demands that you look closely to fully understand why each character makes the choices he or she does. It all will make perfect sense to the astute, but for anyone not paying close enough attention, it might be easy to get lost. Some will walk away from this film feeling as if they missed something, and they’ll probably be right… not because it wasn’t there to find, but because they weren’t looking hard enough.
Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan as main characters Zach and Josh give riveting performances. The two are equally important to the story, but, as Zach is the de facto main character, when the plot divulges and Zach and Josh are forced apart by the terrible secret they share, we are left to agonize with Zach alone as he loses his best friend and is driven further into desperate isolation. Campbell juggles paranoia, fear, anger, loneliness, and frustration so well that we can understand every choice he makes, even while wishing frantically for him not to make them.
While Campbell is given the bulk of the heavy lifting, Charlie Tahan squeezes the most out of every ounce of screen time he gets and makes you believe in the eventual transformation of his character. In a lesser film with a lesser performer, Josh could have easily have been cast in a villainous light but nuance is the name of the game here and by the end Tahan bursts from his mysterious cocoon covered in shades of bloody grey.
Super Dark Times is a challenging, but rewarding film that asks a lot of its audience. It asks that we take a hard look at a time that most of us would prefer to remember fondly and see it for what it was. To remove our rose-colored glasses and examine our past in a frank and honest manner. For those of us who lived in similar circumstances and came through the other side, there can be a certain nostalgia even for times as harrowing as these. Remembrance of pain can be as cathartic as remembrance of happiness, after all, if only to bring clarity to both.