For a brief but blissful stretch, Super Dark Times comes closer than most films to capturing the private, painfully uncool world of teenage boys: the afternoons of eventfully uneventful downtime, burnt away on mild transgressions and conversational one-upmanship. Two gawky high schoolers, Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan), bike around their Upstate New York suburb, dodging the upperclassmen bullies, shooting the shit about comic books and girls, generally basking in the everyday freedoms of unsupervised adolescence. Profanity flies freely, because it can. Vulnerabilities are casually revealed beneath the play-acting bluster of boys being boys pretending to be men. Next to these ordinary teens, the terrorized pipsqueaks of this month’s hit Stephen King adaptation seem downright artificial, like some clueless studio exec’s conception of how kids talk and act.
There are no evil clowns capering through Super Dark Times. But as the title tips off, a different kind of danger seeps into the film’s King-ish, overgrown-backyard vision of American youth. The turning point is a nasty accident in the wilderness: a flare of tempers, a flash of metal, and finally, a feverish cover-up. Zach, the perennial peacekeeper of the two, is seized by guilt and paranoia. His mother (Amy Hargreaves) can’t get through to him. Neither can the pretty classmate (Elizabeth Cappuccino) who finally reciprocates his crush. When he manages to sleep at all, Zach’s dreams twist into nightmares, at one point entwining sex and death in a way that recalls scenes from both Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist and King’s superbly disturbing novella Apt Pupil. Meanwhile, Josh—the less social animal, nursing a more hostile introversion—disappears into his room, into himself, into suspicious behavior. (Tahan, who also plays the young Scarecrow on Gotham, has a seething outsider specificity. If Hollywood ever makes the terrible decision to remake Back To The Future, they’ve got a suitable George McFly right here.)
Director Kevin Phillips drenches his first feature in a lot of romantic style—the beatific pink glow of waning daylight as it bleeds through the cracks between trees, the lilting grandeur of ambient music slathered atop silhouetted images of boys on bikes. Hopping the nostalgia train that recently passed through Derry, Maine and Hawkins, Indiana, Super Dark Times rewinds back to the 1990s, which means we get caller-I.D. boxes on cordless phones, Minesweeper on desktop computers, and Bill Clinton on tube televisions. Phillips supposedly chose this particular era not just for its cosmetic signifiers, but also to pinpoint a specific age of youth disillusionment, right before Columbine instilled a fear of homicidal tendencies bubbling to the surface of teenage psyches. The adults here are less hysterical but also more oblivious. The opening scene, which teases bloodshed to come, finds two police officers forced to kill a dying deer that’s leapt through a classroom window. They couldn’t stop the violence from happening; they can only clean up the mess.
Did the super dark times need to arrive at all? If the scenes of shit-kicking naturalism feel authentic, the thriller that replaces them—a kind of junior A Simple Plan—relies too heavily on unconvincing psychology. Screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski never trace a believable path from shattered innocence to the intense climax, in part because they largely neglect, for purposes of suspense, the character whose motivations most need clarifying. That’s a vague way of saying that Super Dark Times is much sharper on the minds of ordinary teen boys than it is on what happens when those minds snap. Maybe it’s best to read the horrors of the film’s backstretch abstractly, as a kind of amped-up version of a common occurrence: two friends drifting apart, often around the time that one of them drifts into romance. The leads sell that drama, even if they can’t sell some late twists; Campbell, especially, lends the material a sensitive soul, just as he did in As You Are, another teen drama set in the ’90s that loses its way when the weapons come out.