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“If anyone asks, we’re already f**cked.” Being a teenager is like the best thing ever and the worst thing ever all rolled into one. It’s that phase in your life where adulthood feels almost within reach, and yet, most of us lack the ability to fully grasp and comprehend “grown-up” scenarios when we find ourselves caught in the middle of them. It’s something this writer experienced many times as a teen (who thought she knew everything, and quickly realized she knew nothing), and a notion that first-time feature filmmaker Kevin Phillips deftly explores in his meticulously crafted coming-of-age psychological thriller, Super Dark Times, which repeatedly kicked me right in the gut in the best possible way.

Super Dark Times writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski do a brilliant job of tapping into the confusion, anger, and simple joys of being teenagers (and in this case, being teenagers in the ’90s) with their powerful and gripping horror drama about two longtime friends who see their loyalties put to the ultimate test after a tragic death befalls one of their pals, and they must work together to conceal the crime.

At the start of the film, we meet friends Josh (Charlie Tahan) and Zach (Owen Campbell), who are just a pair of typical teenage boys who like to talk about girls, decipher scrambled porn, and harmlessly screw around like most kids their ages, whether it's daring each other to eat some dried squid or yelling vulgarities outside a potential love interest’s home or horsing around by chopping up milk cartons with a sword Josh snuck out of his older brother’s room. It’s that final scenario—combined with a bit of a weed-fueled standoff—that leads to a horrific accident that leaves one of their cohorts dead. Rather than go straight to the authorities, they decide to leave the body in the woods, stash the inadvertent weapon, and go on like nothing happened. And, as you can imagine, that’s precisely when Super Dark Times lives up to its ominous title.

By setting the story against the harsh and isolating backdrop of winter, Phillips and his screenwriting team do a beautiful job of immersing us in the bitterness and bleakness that the adolescent experience can be for many kids out there. The film has a brief opening shot of a deer who had plunged through a window in the local high school and must be put out of its misery, with one student happening to oversee its gruesome fate in passing. It seems like such an odd moment to open a movie on, especially one about teen relationships, but I love how it subtly ties into the randomness and fragility of life, as well as just how quickly it can all be taken away, and that’s a big part of just what propels Super Dark Times into some horrifically disturbing places, especially during the last 20 minutes or so.

The core of why Super Dark Times hits you as hard as it does is the natural affection shared between the film’s main characters, Zach and Josh, and both Campbell and Tahan deliver a pair of performances that resonated with me on so many levels, particularly because their dynamic (before everything goes to hell, of course) reminded me so much of two of my best high school guy friends, and I couldn’t help but see them in these characters.

After the accident, we see how both Zach and Josh process everything that has happened, with the latter spiraling out of control, lashing out in school and against his friends, and exhibiting some rather suspect behavior in general. And as we observe Josh’s descent into madness, you can only feel sadness towards his character, because you know at the center of it all is a good kid who wasn’t emotionally prepared to deal with the gravity of the situation at hand, and the weight of this burden has completely consumed him, both physically and emotionally. Kudos to Tahan for being able to tap into a character with that kind of duality so effortlessly, and I’d love to see a lot more from both of these young actors in the future. They’re both exceptional in this, and their performances in SDT feel wholly genuine and relatable.

As a whole, I don’t think I could have loved Super Dark Times more, especially because I was right around that age in the ’90s (yup, I’m old), so the film hit a few nostalgia buttons for me, but also perfectly captured the awkwardness and angst that accompanies being a teenager as well. Phillips has crafted one helluva directorial debut with Super Dark Times, an experience laced with palpable tension akin to a boiling kettle that’s ready to blow at any given moment, and I highly recommend that genre fans seek this one out as soon as you possibly can (it hits limited theaters in late September and VOD platforms in early October).

Movie Score: 5/5

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In case you missed it, check here to read more Fantastic Fest 2017 reviews and interviews, and stay tuned to Daily Dead for more of our live coverage of the festival.

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