J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Tribeca ’17: Super Dark Times

At least this violent high school tragedy cannot be cynically exploited by the personal rights-encroaching nanny-state lobby. Perhaps there is a movement to ban samurai swords, but it is hard to see it gaining much momentum, even with this example of the accidental killing of a classmate. The incident emotionally and psychologically devastates two life-long friends, leading to some very bad things in Kevin Phillips’ Super Dark Times, which screens during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Zach and Josh have always been inseparable, even though they both carry a torch for the same popular girl in their class. Sometimes they knock about with Charlie and they will reluctantly allow Daryl, the annoying tubby kid, to tag along. One day, Josh takes his enlisted brother’s samurai sword out into the woods to slice up milk cartons with the other three lads. Unfortunately, Daryl is being his usual grabby, pestering self, except maybe worse. One thing leads to another and Josh inadvertently slices Daryl. Thoroughly freaked out and panicky, the three survivors cover his body with brush and resolve to never talk about it again.

Of course, living with this kind of corrosive secret takes a toll on their souls. Zach manages to keep up appearances, but he is reeling inside. In contrast, Josh seems to go numb, retreating into himself and recording extended absences from class. When he returns, he seems cold and distant. Soon thereafter, a classmate he is known to dislike dies under mysterious circumstances shortly thereafter. Subsequent events lead Zach to suspect his best bud may have developed a taste for killing.

In this case, how Super Dark is programmed has a direct bearing on whether we can recommend it. Phillips’ film is a selection of the “midnight” section, which implies a certain level of mayhem and attitude. Patrons come to midnight screenings expecting to “have fun” with a film, but Super Dark is tonally much more akin to a film like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. As a result, the regular midnight crew is likely to walk out of it feeling depressed and sucker-punched.

That really does Super Dark a disservice, because it is in fact a film of some merit. It is a tough, honest film that does not resort to cheap sentimentality or lazy takeaways. We cannot ascribe the violence in the film to the influence of drugs or explicit video games. Nor can we blame parental neglect. It is just a function of a sickness in the soul, for which Josh apparently has a greater susceptibility.

Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan are both unremittingly intense as Zach and Josh. However, it is some of the supporting turns that really breathe life into the film. Elizabeth Cappuccino finds surprising depth and subtly in Allison, the “It Girl,” while Amy Hargreaves adds further dimension and maturity to the proceedings, as Zach’s “cool” but loving single mom Karen. Frankly, the fact that she is so oblivious is rather disturbing, precisely because she seems to be doing everything right.

Phillips deliberately keeps the proceedings dark and dour, which certainly suits the film’s grim view of human nature. The genre elements, such as they are, decidedly reflect an austerely naturalistic aesthetic. That makes it a distinctive calling card for Phillips and his ensemble, but not much of a midnight movie. Look, just because you like a film doesn’t mean you should select it for your festival track. That’s why it’s called programming. Regardless, mature audiences should consider checking it out eventually. For now, it screens again tonight (4/21), tomorrow (4/22), and Sunday (4/23), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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