THE ORCHARD (2017)
Director: Kevin Phillips
Starring: Owen Campbell, Charlie Tahan, Elizabeth Cappuccino, Max Talisman, Sawyer Barth, Amy Hargreaves, Adea Lennox
In a world before the internet, iAnything and social media…
Coming of age stories are fairly well-trodden and, actually, one of the more consistent ‘genre’ of movies in terms of quality. Kevin Phillips’ directorial debut Super Dark Times is another addition to the vaults and follows four teenage boys in a small town – sounds familiar?
Where this movie deviates is in its bizarreness and yes, its darkness.
After a deer is found dying in a school classroom, the mood is set for a compelling and persistent thriller. Best buds Zack (Campbell) and Josh (Tahan) are teens who enjoy discussing the finer points of life – which schoolmates they’d do naughty things with, particularly their pretty friend Allison (Cappuccino). They meet up with equally strange friends Daryl (Talisman) and Charlie (Barth) and go on bike adventures, crossing the closed-off bridge, eating raw squid and chilling with Josh’s absent brother’s katana. Yep, a katana. It’s that katana that causes the dominoes to fall one afternoon as a tragic accident during a scuffle leads to one of the boys being fatally stabbed in the neck…and buried in a shallow, leafy grave. Racked by grief, the surviving teens attempt to struggle through their existence whilst avoiding their clingy parents, awkwardly circumventing love interests and maintaining now-fragile friendships – and also trying to keep themselves from falling into madness.
Super Dark Times is firmly set in the mid-90s and displays a sheer disconnect to modern times. The teens have to use shared analogue phones and there’s no internet to keep them entertained. Kids are still kids at heart, still reliant on their parents, who in turn rely on them. The majority of coming of age stories seem to be set in the more innocent times – i.e. 1980’s/1990’s, where mobile phones aren’t readily available to solve all of our issues and everything just seems a bit better. There’s a wonderful nostalgia swirling around the movie that ropes you in further, unless you never had a Walkman or Portable CD player, in which case - poor you. Set in a small suburb on New York (apparently), there’s an ominous atmosphere that hangs over the town - and the movie in general – and one that begins immediately. The dying, bloodied deer is never explained amidst a confused school audience. Later, a scene shows a boy running through the school hall screaming whilst holding his arm – again, an event never developed. There are a few examples of this during the movie that only exist to successfully further the atmosphere the movie expertly creates.
Crucially for the story, the two leads are brilliant. The two boys feel like friends in every interaction and there’s a rough, spontaneous feel to their scenes that really creates a genuine sense of kinship. Both Campbell and Tahan’s spirals into separate psychological descents are superbly delivered and unnervingly authentic feeling. The wonderfully named Elizabeth Cappuccino serves up a gentle, affable performance as Allison, the ever-so-patient not-quite girlfriend who never feels like a spare part.
As mentioned, what the movie does very well is to create a gloomy atmosphere – by its use of (beautiful) visuals, patient build-up, minimal score, unexplored story beats and great performances. Set during ‘Fall’ – Autumn/Winter – the seasonal feel lends an already chilly feel – the trees are shedding, there’s a mist hanging in the background, a grey tone permeates the sky. DoP Eli Born does a fantastic job of capturing the town and allowing it to flourish as a creepy character in itself. Church spires peek through the trees, the deserted streets (seriously, there’s nearly no one else around) look barren, the ubiquitous river bridge acts as an escape for the kids (whereas the closed bridge out of town signifies something darker at play?) – there are an awful lot of stunning shots in this movie. The writers and Born hit the target with their work in Super Dark Times.
The third act strays deep into cliché territory, and actually isn’t on the same high level as the previous acts, however, it wraps up the character arcs tightly. There are plenty of tropes on show throughout the movie, it’s nothing necessarily new, however, the mood created and the performances allow the conventions and clichés to slip into the background.
Super Dark Times swells with its well-crafted approach and delivery of the tough, teenage years and infuses it with a slow-burning paranoid thriller undercurrent. The performances are top drawer across the board and the movie ends up being compelling, engaging, creepy and atmospheric, but more importantly - it's very, very good.
November 20th 2017