Indiewire described Super Dark Times as “an unnerving cross between Stand By Me and Donnie Darko,” but the truth is that this future cult classic is many things to many people: A nightmarish tale of love; a retro suburban crime thriller; a blood-soaked coming-of-age story... Director Kevin Phillips effortlessly slashes through genres in his feature debut with the precision of a katana blade — and therein lies the genius.
Super Dark Influences
Super Dark Times opens with an apocalyptic sense of dread as the camera tracks around a blood-stained classroom, foreshadowing the inevitable carnage that forever shatters the lives of our young protagonists. Although the cause of this particular incident appears unrelated to the central narrative, it doesn't matter. Instantly, the mood is set, lingering even during the film's lighter scenes of banter that follow soon after. In fact, parallels with the oppressively surreal atmosphere of #DonnieDarko temporarily fall by the wayside as these "super dark times" evolve into something else entirely.
Upon first meeting Zach and Josh, it's hard not to marvel at the carefree dialogue that these teenagers share. Discussing how often they masturbate, the loneliness of the Silver Surfer, and everything in between, the scripting here evokes the raw innocence of childhood best depicted in #StandByMe, although there are also shades of IT and #StrangerThings too.
Biking along suburban roads, Zach and Josh immediately remind audiences of characters like Gordie Lachance and Bill Denbrough, but while those children lost their innocence more gradually, the kids in Super Dark Times are thrust head-first into a far darker world than anything hidden in the Upside Down, forced to confront the reality of death head-on.
What's even worse though is how this all happens so naturally. At first, the boys enjoy just another day fooling around with friends, but the fun and games quickly escalate when Josh removes his older brother's katana from his room. Cue an accidental blood bath that unnerves precisely because of how relatable it is. Just like in Mean Creek, the kids involved in this devastating crime never understand the full gravity of their actions until it's too late.
'Super Dark Times' Effortlessly Shifts Between Genres
By centering Super Dark Times around a violent crime, writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski ground the film's most extreme scene in an authentic and emotionally honest way that proves too much to bear for our protagonists. Through this approach, the narrative then switches things up once again, shifting away from both the surreal opening and subsequent banter into a thriller of sorts, one that evokes the measured pacing of Rian Johnson's Brick. Just like Brendan Frye investigates a murder in his town, Zach too eventually begins to suspect that Josh may be guilty of further murders in light of the earlier accident.
Before Josh flies off the rails completely though, the focus lies instead on the guilt that all parties bear, and how its corrosive nature sears through the supposed normality of their lives in unpredictable ways. Scenes where Zach is too numb to act normally around his mom or even enjoy Allison's advances evoke teen dramas such as #13ReasonsWhy (which coincidentally shares a key mother role in the form of actress Amy Hargreaves).
However, it's the unique way that guilt literally weighs down on Zach that bends the film's exploration of the genre even further. By imbuing Super Dark Times with these more surreal encounters, director Kevin Phillips ventures far beyond the darker aspects of Donnie Darko, descending into the nightmarish world of horror auteurs such as John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and even Lars Von Trier. Super Dark Times defies typical #horror labels, but the sinister dream sequences certainly evoke key tropes of the genre, including a zombie attack, a flickering television set, and an homage to one of Antichrist's more charged scenarios.
The '90s Are The New '80s
The brooding imagery framed by cinematographer Eli Born is interspersed with knowing nods to the '90s setting, but nostalgia never becomes the focus here like it does in Stranger Things. Instead, the walkmans and VHS tapes threaded throughout the production design unbalance the viewer. While nostalgia is often used to comfort audiences, the understated hints of another era actually add to the sense of unease here, making everything feel just so slightly out of place.
Phillips himself was a teenager during this decade, so it's no surprise that Super Dark Times introduces these period elements in such a subtle way, lending the film a more distinct tone without overshadowing the story's universal appeal.
During an interview with Deadline, Phillips elaborated on the core themes of his directorial debut, explaining that:
“The film’s about some friends, and they kind of get into some sh*t with a samurai sword. It’s an accident, and it leads to a disaster, for not only their friendship, but for their lives, and for their young brains, I think. It just starts spiraling from there, and the guilt and paranoia that’s associated with this tragedy takes a toll.”
On paper, this seems rather straightforward, but in reality, Super Dark Times is so much more than just an homage to Stand By Me or Donnie Darko. Instead, the film represents a fascinating study of adolescence and the fragility of Americana, one that draws upon a huge range of influences to create something bold and new. In the wrong hands, this approach could have been too muddled and cumbersome, but here, Phillips and his exceptional cast have set a new benchmark, heralding anything but super dark times for the future of indie cinema.
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