Elizabeth Cappuccino and Owen Campbell in Super Dark Times (Eli Born)

Super Dark Times opens with a disturbing, surreal scene that seems disconnected from the rest of the film. A mortally wounded buck has found its way into the local high school, and the sheriff’s department ends up putting it out of its misery—by breaking its neck. The incident is never referred to again. It’s an odd way to start the movie, but it definitely throws you off balance.

Taking place in 1995, the plot proper begins when we meet best friends Zach (Owen Thompson) and Josh (Charlie Tahan). They are your average high schoolers, in the middle of the social pecking order. Zach is sweet and shy, and Josh is tall and dorky. They do teen things. They ride around on their bikes in a foggy upstate town. They debate superhero merits and prank each other by yelling, “Penis” in front of the house of the girl one of them really likes. They also get harassed by the local bullies. If life isn’t idyllic, it’s bearable and survivable, especially considering that it seems like the girl that Zach has a crush on, Allison (Elizabeth Cappucino), shows interest.

Trouble begins when the boys run into two high school acquaintances. The foursome hang out a couple of times, but a gruesome accident leaves one of the boys dead and the other three complicit in a cover up. Here is where the film takes off. The story bears down on Zach, his guilt, and his fear of getting caught. Josh, responsible for the accident, is slowly closing off, and Zach is unable to suss how he is feeling. And being teenage boys, forthright confessionals are not their forte. So, Zach is alone and paranoid, working to stay out of jail and to get through the usual teenage peccadillos.

Writers Ben Collins and Luke Pietrowski have a preternatural sense of the teen mind and a way with dialogue, and director Kevin Phillips develops a great sympathy for the kids and coaxes excellent performances from his young cast. Both Thompson and Tahan, in particular, are standouts. You can practically see the worry lines etching into Thompson’s face as Zach tries to work on a problem that is clearly beyond his years. Zach is a good kid with a strong, moral center, but he has an incredibly tough time just keeping up. Thompson evokes that, and through his anxiety, you occasionally see that sweet kid pop to the forefront before darkness takes over him again.

Tahan evokes a young Crispin Glover. Josh is at the point where he can either move to the cool nerd end of the spectrum or to the socially inappropriate loser. He is aware of that, and every step is carefully considered, and when he missteps, you sense the rage underneath. Cappuccino, as Allison, teases and tests her burgeoning womanhood in a sly performance that approaches the typical girlfriend role from a much more refreshing angle.

Phillips manages to build tension nicely, but when that tension finally breaks, he moves toward standard slasher fare, and we are now left with a genre film. Phillips is an exceptional director and still manages to hold our attention and keep things grounded in reality, which makes the attacks resonate more. However, the aggression and killings come out of left field because the behavior simply doesn’t jibe with what we’ve seen regarding the culprit. As a result, the first two thirds of the film fits awkwardly with the last third, somewhat like a toddler forcing two puzzle piece that don’t fit together.

This is a shame because most of Super Dark Times is an acute character study. To flip it into a damsel-in-distress type of slasher flick undercuts this somewhat. Though I have to say, like in the beginning, the film ends with a final scene that makes literal the emotional scars of adolescence in a very effective manner.

Directed by Kevin Phillips
Written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski
Released by the Orchard
USA. 100 min. Not rated
With Owen Campbell, Charlie Tahan, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Max Talisman, and Sawyer Barth