“Super Dark Times” is a film about the darkness in suburban teens so allow me to start with a light analogy from my teen experience.   

Watching movies is like boogie boarding. When you’re out there you hope every wave will come perfectly shaped, suck you up, surge forward, and carry you breathless to shore. Not every wave, or film, gets there. Some smash into you clumsily, leaving you frustrated and sputtering. Most are somewhere in between, requiring some kicks and adjustments to ride their vibe just right. If you try, they’ll take you somewhere worthwhile. 

“Super Dark Times” is dis-orientingly hard to catch. It’s the wave that looks ideal from a distance, swells beautifully, but dissipates under you at the last moment, un-crested.  It leaves you drifting, dizzy, wondering what you missed. This gruesome teen thriller set in 90’s suburbia builds masterfully, but the super dark place it takes the characters doesn’t feel earned. The plot begins with bad news and gets worse.

 “Do you remember Daryl Harper? I got a call from his mom. Guess he never came home last night.”

Another kid is missing in America. Another town corrupted. Or, as most horror stories imply, a town is unveiled as corrupt from the start, only requiring a shocking event to incite a closer look. “Super Dark Times” shares DNA with yarns like “It,” “Twin Peaks,” and “Stranger Things.” Boys cycle through autumn streets, spewing expletives, no matter if they’re describing a sex scene or the taste of Skittles. Those fall semester days, when the sun’s nearly set by the afternoon, are captured stunningly here. In this tale though, the teen boys at the center of the events, normcore, sweet Zach (Owen Campbell) and wired, impulsive Josh (Charlie Tahan), aren’t solving a mystery. They know precisely what happened to poor Daryl, a loud-mouthed local kid. Their knowledge of that violent moment spurs their paranoia and nauseous anxiety.

The main filmmaking quality to commend is the enveloping atmosphere. The wood-paneled rooms of 90’s suburbia, lit with ample Christmas lights, are warm without pushing into heavy nostalgia. The wintry glow and fog that overtake the film are oppressive. I found myself wishing this enormously capable creative team had swung by for an editing pass on “IT.” Certain lingering looks and dream sequences are patiently eerie in a way that jumpy, jerky Hollywood scarefests rarely attempt. Director Kevin Phillips and team wield the score, editing, camerawork, and performances to make every scene pulse with dread. Even if the story bleeds out, the craft is under control.

Director Kevin Phillips and team wield the score, editing, camerawork, and performances to make every scene pulse with dread. Even if the story bleeds out, the craft is under control.

Any film with this type of plot should heed the adage: “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” A missing child plot gives and gives, opening up audience vulnerabilities. Still, the double-edged sword, especially in a post-Columbine America, is that material dealing with school-age trauma demands care. Unfortunately, certain potent material feels merely gestured towards rather than deeply considered in “Super Dark Times,” particularly in the frantic conclusion.

Still, third act stumbles don’t disarm this thriller’s effectiveness. The crushing tension up to that point is impeccable. To much the film’s credit, it allows its’ teen leads to be traumatized. Before Daryl’s disappearance, Zach and Josh scarf the grossest gas station snacks on dares and talk superheroes. After, they’re twitchy and plagued by nightmares. Despite this welcome care for emotional consequences, some character maneuvers become sketchy. Their actions slot into stereotypes of why teen boys act out in rage, but the details aren’t filled in. Perhaps that’s the point.

Our world is saturated with misogynistic comments and ideals of toughness for boys. This can confuse our ability to recognize who is cracking psychologically as, in retrospect, many teens display telltale concerns.  Zach, Josh, and their classmates talk about which girls they’d sleep with, as though entitled to any and all of them. (Thankfully, the romantic interest amidst the mayhem (Elizabeth Cappuccino) is active and frank about her feelings to counter the objectification.) Zach and Josh also clash with guys at school, usually stopping short of trading blows. The film reminds us these casual boasts can build to vicious violence. It’s not an original point, but it remains evergreen.

One early sequence creates a masterful visual metaphor for the process of realizing something’s off. The boys notice an odd black circle on a gas station ceiling. “What do you make of that?,” one asks. “That’s always been there,” another responds. Later, the shape appears on the ceiling in Zach’s nightmares, emitting strange screams. It’s a nearly Lynchian image and expresses how the boys miss the rough edges of their own psyches. Smart visuals like this elevate the film. So, while “Super Dark Times” is unlikely to enter the canon of small-town horror tales, it will leave you eager for the future work of all involved. This team makes smart, involving cinematic choices across the board, even when story decisions leave the craftsmanship adrift in a senseless sea. 

“Super Dark Times” is not rated. 100 minutes. Now playing at Laemmle’s NoHo 7.