Suburban teendom often means killing time, auditioning selves, inhabiting the you that you can pull off for now but also maybe worrying about the you you’ll aim for next. Few films honor that uncertain aimlessness like Tim Sutton’s Dark Night, an anthro-fiction offering exquisitely framed long-take looks at Sarasota teenagers not doing much. The kids text, play video games, skateboard, go to the shooting range. Guns are all around them, in real life and in their media. They don’t speak much, and only rarely does one shot follow the next in scenic continuity — Sutton, the writer and director behind 2013’s mytho-poetic study Memphis, tends to offer a long look at an everyday moment and then jump to another.
That leaves us the chance to consider what teens themselves, with all that time available to them, don’t often take a breath to think about: What do their do-nothing days mean? Should we weep for the young woman posing tirelessly until she nails the perfect sports-bra selfie? Should we wonder who she’s planning to send it to? Is it a jab of insight or annoyance we experience when we realize that Sutton’s not going to show us who is on the receiving end?
Sutton makes the concrete oblique, even mysterious. His fiction films verge on documentary, with nonprofessional actors inhabiting their real-life environs. But the episodes he captures tend to be related by theme rather than narrative, and he has a poet’s vision, rendering familiar American nowheres into dreamscapes. The opening moments of Dark Night find alien power in a common image: police lights flashing across a parking lot. Even a staid talking-head interview segment, with a concerned mother and the shaven-headed son who is either the perpetrator or the victim of a crime, finds wonder in the living room: A mirrored wall behind the couch the subjects sit on reflects an infinity of ceiling fans. If the lives depicted here never fascinate as much as those in Memphis, is the fault Sutton’s — or is it suburban America’s?
The connecting theme eventually builds into something like a story. Dark Night follows its teenagers over the course of a day that will end with a trip to the movies — and a mass shooting in the theater, inspired by the 2012 murders in Aurora, Colorado. Sutton spares us the violence; instead, he demands we study the milieu in which the shooter has steeped. There’s some suspense, as the film unfolds, over which teen might become the shooter and which the victims and witnesses, and Sutton stages a tense mid-film sequence of a frustrated boy wandering his neighborhood with a gun, eventually aiming it into a window behind which young women are forming a bond without him.
What’s terrifying, though, is that nothing much sets the eventual killer apart from the other teens. They’re all trying on masks, trying to find a way to matter in the world. They just don’t have much else to do.