The ominous prologue of Kevin Phillips’ “Super Dark Times” arrives like a shiver, and that chill lingers until the bitter end, continuing to sink into your skin even as the rest of the film begins to melt into the atmosphere. A slow-burn high school thriller that’s like a tortured cross between “Stand By Me” and “Donnie Darko” (with a bit of Dostoyevskian madness thrown in there for good measure, Phillips’ feature-length debut begins by welcoming us to a grey Hudson Valley town that’s lost in the barren phantom zone between fall and winter.
The place looks practically post-apocalyptic, the shattered window of a classroom evoking “Children of Men.” But it’s not the end of the world, just a petrified buck who’s gotten himself into a spot of trouble. Some cops stand over the animal as it lies dying on the floor between the desks, the men unsure as to what the hell they’re supposed to do about all this. Eventually, one of them takes matters into his own hands (or legs), and stomps the poor creature to death. None of this is explicitly relevant to the story that “Super Dark Times” is getting ready to tell, but the (very) cold open makes two things clear: One, Phillips knows how to convey mood with a camera. Two, some messes can’t be so easily cleaned up.
We can tell that this is set in the ’90s before we’re told that this is set in the ’90s. It’s not just that Zach (Owen Campbell), Josh (Charlie Tahan), and all of their horny teenage friends spend their free time staring at scrambled porn on cable, or that they drool over the girls in their school yearbook rather than swiping through them online, but also that Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski’s script has them behave in perfect accordance with how the media has memorialized ’90s kids. They’re white, blue-collar, suburbanites who talk about superheroes, deal with bullies, and ride their bikes around town while slinging all manner of senseless insults at each other; in other words, they’re exactly like ’80s kids, but with a little less wonder. Watching “Super Dark Times” so recently after “Stranger Things” exhumed such characterizations, it’s enough to wonder if throwbacks like this capture what it was like to be young, or simply crystallize how we remember it.
Regardless, Phillips’ film transcends the limits of its narrow-minded nostalgia because it doesn’t revisit some lost idyll so much as it corrupts one. “Super Dark Times” might technically be called a coming-of-age story, but it’s less interested in growing up than it is in holding on — life is about to get way too real for these kids, and some of them are going to survive that transition better than others. Well, they’re all going to survive it better than Daryl (Max Talisman), the irksome, potentially handicapped kid who Josh accidentally murders with a samurai sword (a sequence of events that unfolds with the believably asinine logic of four bored teenage boys trying to kill time).
Each of the boys reacts to the trauma in a different way. Zach, the super generic protagonist of the bunch, does his best to internalize his feelings, a task that proves increasingly tricky as the girl he likes (a captivatingly curious Elizabeth Cappuccino) picks a very awkward time to return the sentiment. Josh, on the other hand, is a bit harder to track. The most volatile, angsty, and outwardly mature of his friends, Josh disappears after the killing, only to resurface a few days later acting like nothing ever happened. That’s when the bodies begin to pile up.
Shot with the stoic confidence of a capable young director flexing his muscles, “Super Dark Times” is visceral and gripping throughout, its probing compositions forcing you to peer deeper and deeper into the darkness. It’s frustrating to discover that there may not be all that much to see in the void, but the film’s oblique performances — strung together by Ben Frost’s jangly score — make it exceedingly difficult to stop squinting. Even as the story’s dramatic tension disappears amidst an an overload of sinister dream sequences, and the confused pathos that Phillips wrenches out of his characters begins to feel like a hollow excuse to play with brooding imagery and reframe an iconic shot from Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,” the movie still keeps you in its sway. And while the limp third act finds the most enervating way of reaching its enigmatic final shots, those last images resolve into a feeling that much of the movie is spent desperately trying to find: Innocence is always lost, that’s a fact. It’s what people allow to take its place that defines them.
“Super Dark Times” played in the Midnight section of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. The Orchard will release it in theaters later this year.