Kevin Phillips embraces the terror of teenagerdom in 'Super Dark Times'
From Stand By Me and The Goonies to “Stranger Things” and It, the “boys on bikes” genre is a tried-and-true part of the film landscape. It might take place in the ‘50s or the ‘80s or any other decade, but a "boys on bikes" film is always suffuced with an aura of nostalgia, if not for a specific era, then for the simple joys of childhood. It probably (thought not always) takes place in the summer. In it, you have a group of misfits—usually boys, with “The Girl” thrown into the mix from time to time—banding together through the power of friendship to defeat some evil, great or small.
Director Kevin Phillips subverts that genre—and elements the horror genre besides—in Super Dark Times. There are boys, and they’re on bikes, and there’s nostalgia, the film being set in the ‘90s. But the evil comes from within instead of without, and the power of friendship won’t necessarily save the day.
Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan star as Zach and Josh, teenage nerds who roam around their small upstate New York town with two other friends (Max Talisman and Sawyer Barth) engaging in typical teenage boy nerd behavior, i.e. talking about masturbation, arguing about superheroes and daring each other to eat weird food. A combination of hidden resentments, pot and a samurai sword—seriously, don’t play with a samurai sword when there are drugs involved, it cannot end well—has disastrous consequences, and Zach and Josh find their friendship buckling under the weight of, in Phillips’ words, “guilt and tragedy.”
In many ways, Super Dark Times is about the toxicity of young male friendships, the way constant jealousies and one-upmanship can sour a relationship—especially when you throw a girl (Elizabeth Cappuccino) whom both boys like into the mix. Of note is the fact that fathers are absent in this film, as is Josh’s idolized older brother, who’s enlisted in the Marines. There are just angry, confused teenage boys, wrestling with feelings of inferiority and ready (in one character’s particular case) to lash out at the world and each other.
Zach and Josh “can’t do anything without one another,” Phillips explains, but at the same time “they’re both trying to volley for control and superiority as a means of finding themselves in life. And how that’s put to the test after this incidental tragedy occurs is what’s curious” to Phillips and co-writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, the latter two childhood friends themselves. “At the end of the day, we wanted to approach this movie as a tragedy more than anything else, and examine how the tragic side of a friendship can fall apart under a certain weight.”
The result is a chilling film, one that asks us to take the sun-dappled, dreamy quality we typically associate with childhood—or at least with cinematic depictions of childhood—and look at it through a darker lens. (Fans of Jon Watts’ Cop Car would do well to check this one out.) There’s a dreamy quality to Super Dark Times—and not just in the sense that the film, or the middle part of it, literally has its genesis in a dream Collins had. Shot in upstate New York in the soft light of winter, Super Dark Times is “a very quiet film. Reserved, stylistically. But I wanted it to be expressive as well.” Among his cinematic inspirations, Phillips cites Lynne Ramsay, David Fincher, Jonathan Demme, Paul Thomas Anderson, Akira Kurosawa and Takashi Miike.
Though Super Dark Times is a violent film, Phillips went out of his way to not “make anything titillating. I wanted to be responsible and show the violence as the negative that it is… I never approached this movie as a horror movie. Ben and Luke have a lot of experience writing horror films, but we never set out to make a horror movie with this. We set out to make a drama mixed with tragedy. I think there’s absolutely horrific aspects, but I certainly didn’t want it to fall into genre tropes. I wanted to subvert all of that.”
Super Dark Times may be refreshingly different from its cinematic predecessors, but one thing it shares with the best of them is a cast of talented young actors. Here, Phillips heaps credit on veteran casting directors Lois J. Drabkin and Susan Shopmaker, who cast the film out of New York. The standout is Tahan, 17 at the time of filming, who brings to Zach dueling traits of self-possession and inner turmoil roiling behind the eyes. “Charlie was the first person that we cast,” Phillips recalls. He “came in, was the last person of the day, and we gave him my glasses to do the reading for Josh – he had only wanted to read for Josh, too. At one point we asked him to read for Zach, and he said no. He found Josh’s character to be particularly interesting, and rightly so. And so he did the reading, and I didn’t have any notes for him – he confided later that he thought he failed the audition. But right when he left, I turned to everybody and was like, ‘We have to build the movie around him.’”
Due to a “fever pitch” schedule, Phillips didn’t have time for chemistry reads—but still, thank goodness, happened on a group of kids with ample rapport for the banter-heavy early scenes, which establish Super Dark Times as a funny, goofy time until everything goes to shit. On set, Phillips recalls, “we managed to craft a family out of our entire unit, and that allowed for everyone to throw ego out the door and think of this as one collaborative effort, to bring this medium of cinema to life. I think the best thing about cinema is the collaborative aspect of it, and I think we really all embraced that.”