Super Dark Times

A fascinating and chilling portrayal of doomed youth… ★★★★

Super Dark Times

United States: Directed by Kevin Phillips, 2017. Starring Owen Campbell, Charlie Tahan, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Max Talisman, Sawyer Barth, Amy Hargreaves. 100 minutes. ★★★★

Super Dark Times opens with a death. In a high school classroom, a deer lies dying in a pool of its own blood. We don’t see how it got there—we only see the shattered window—and it probably isn’t important. What does matter is that it must be put out of its misery. The deer could be an omen that presages the tragic events to come. Or it could be the sacrifice that starts a ritual.

The characters of Super Dark Times are young teenage boys navigating the middle 1990s, the gap between the Cold War and the War, a time when we didn’t realize we still had things to fear. High school freshmen Zack (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) spend their time doing teenage boy stuff: playing video games, discussing which of their female classmates (and teachers) they’d like to get it on with, spending hours tuned to scrambled cable channels, hoping to get a glimpse of something they shouldn’t. Their younger acquaintances, eighth-graders Daryl (Max Talisman) and Charlie (Sawyer Barth), are on the road to becoming “bad kids.” Daryl dares his friends to do gross things, boasts about masturbation, and exhibits an interest in drugs and weapons: an interest which will ultimately cost one of the boys his life in a senseless accident.

If it weren’t for the 1996 setting (which allows for the soundtrack to feature songs like “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” and “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth”, and explains the absence of mobile phones) I’d call Super Dark TimesRiver’s Edge for the 2010s. Both films take place in small towns where the sun hasn’t shined in years, with streets laid out in such a way to prevent escape. Both films center on kids living under the specter of benign neglect at best, outright abuse at worst. Both films work largely because they see the teenagers that don’t fit into the easy high-school stereotypes—nerds, jocks and cheerleaders, preppies, so on—and understand how they relate to each other. Chances are, you knew kids like this during your school days—or you were one of them.

Zack and Josh’s shared secret festers and rots like discarded meat, manifesting as paranoia; when Zack’s classmate Allison (Elizabeth Cappucino) reveals she reciprocates his crush, he proves too distracted to respond. Campbell and Tahan, both of whom have prior experience playing troubled teens (on the TV series The Americans and Gotham, respectively), deliver excellent performances—I could easily imagine the mental strain turning like metal gears in their heads, waiting for something, anything, to jam up the works and bring everything crashing down. These performances, as well as director Kevin Phillips’ commitment to cultivating a doom-laden, damn near apocalyptic mood—make up for a number of flaws, particularly a not-particularly-well foreshadowed twist in character development in the third act and a hard-to-follow action sequence near the end of the film.

Super Dark Times provides a fascinating and chilling portrait of characters cinema often struggles mightily to get right. One of the essential films of 2017, even if it’s not particularly comfortable.

Super Dark Times poster

Retro Review: Over the Edge

A seminal teen drama.

United States. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, 1979. Starring Michael Kramer, Matt Dillon, Pamela Ludwig. 95 minutes.

Welcome to New Granada, the planned community of the future, bringing twentieth-century European living to the southwestern desert. It’s a great place to live, if you’re an adult. However, one-quarter of New Granada’s residents are aged 15 or younger, and they’re bored off their asses. They live in the middle of nowhere. The project to build a bowling alley, roller rink, and drive-in theater was canceled, and the primary meeting-place for the local youth is a prefab aluminum building laughingly called a recreation center.

Over the Edge lays out its central thesis early: when 25% of a community’s population has no freedom, nothing to occupy its time, and doesn’t even want to be there, you have a recipe for disaster. Deprived of anything constructive to do, the kids turn to vandalism, drug abuse, rebellion and violence. The film starts with two teenagers shooting out the window of a passing police cruiser and ends with a riot during a PTA meeting.

Yet while the kids aren’t the heroes of the piece, they’re not exactly villains, either. It’s very clear that the Powers that Be are more interested in property values and real-estate development than in making sure their community is a great place for all its residents to live, and not just the ones who belong to demographic minorities. This is best demonstrated about halfway through the film, where an out-of-state developer tells New Granada’s de facto leader, “You were in such a hopped-up hurry to leave the city that you turned your kids into exactly what you were trying to get away from.”

In addition, the kids are extremely likable, given that they’re a bunch of snot-nosed punks. Hidden inside Over the Edge is a deft and poignant coming-of-age story, as protagonist Carl Willet (Michael Kramer) navigates the treacherous and sometimes violent waters of adolescence: fitting in, his first crush, and so forth. His best friend is Richie White (an impossibly young-seeming Matt Dillon), a shady character who boasts about being labeled “incorrigible” by the authorities and whose motto (also the film’s signature line) is “A kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid.” It’s an overt threat but also an implied promise of loyalty: all the kids have is each other, so they need to stick together.

Director Jonathan Kaplan takes a no-frills approach that borders on documentary or verité, a feeling reinforced by a lack of big names in the adult ensemble and experienced actors amongst the teens. (Not only does Dillon make his screen début here, he also apparently made his acting début as well.) Far from hurting the performances, it actually helps them by stripping away the façade of character, as if the kids are playing themselves.

Over the Edge is a seminal teen drama, less romanticized and idealistic than the subgenre tends to produce but more realistic and relatable. And if you don’t think the film’s themes have application outside its cast of privileged white youth, then you haven’t been paying attention to the news coming out of Baltimore recently.