Chronicle is not a superhero movie. It is a film about three young guys who, after exposure to a mysterious energy source, develop strong telekinetic powers. More to the point, Chronicle is about how having that empowerment in common forges a strong friendship between them, and the ways they deal with the unexpected power surge.
In the sort of telling which has become so familiar thanks to comic books and the TV shows and movies that follow them, those kids should quickly learn that their powers come with an obligation to help society. Then they foil some small-time crime and forge identities through which they can become virtuous examples of humanity, evolved.
That’s not how Chronicle works. I’m not sure these characters would know how to help humanity if they wanted to. There is nothing truly ‘realistic’ in this film, but there is something intimately recognizable in the ways in which these guys deal with their new powers. They’re kids. They play around with pranks and fun. They realize they can fly, and talk about destination vacations for the telekinetically-enhanced. Then — and this is what makes Chronicle stand out, and what really makes it worth seeing — their powers become lenses that magnify their true natures, to destructive and tragic effect.
Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is the quiet one. His terminally ill mother and domineering, abusive father haven’t imparted many social skills, and he lives a life at the fringe of his high school society. The film opens with Andrew’s first use of a video camera, which he has seemingly purchased to record his father’s abusive tendencies. ‘Chronicle,’ as it turns out, is a very literal title, as the entire film is ‘shot’ by one of the characters, and primarily by Andrew’s camera. More on that in a moment.
Matt (Alex Russell) is Andrew’s slightly older cousin. He’s concerned for the younger guy, and feels some obligation to mentor him. Steve (Michael B. Jordan) is the exact opposite of Andrew: charismatic and athletic, a young star in the making. Steve and Matt stumble across a hole in the ground from which a strange sound periodically emits; they recruit Andrew to film their discovery, and find themselves changed.
Accepting that these three guys come together and go into the hole at all requires a certain flexible disbelief, but once their powers begin to manifest Chronicle serves up a minor symphony of super-powered antics. The unlikely trio is connected by an instant bond; they’re no longer quite like anyone else. Call that a metaphor for the first stages of adulthood, or for the strange friendships that are born from life’s more unexpected moments. Both work to some extent.
As conceived by director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis, the action starts out just this side of Jackass, but ends up only a bit shy of Akira. As massively amplified power goes into play, the underpinning of the story is an unvarnished understanding of how boys work, and what a few normal kids would be likely to do with power. The use is mischievous (bringing toys to ‘life’ in a store) and jubilant (taking flight) but also misguided and capricious, as when Andrew sweeps a tailgating SUV into a near-death accident with a wave of his hand.
Chronicle, reportedly budgeted at about $15m, argues that tens of millions of dollars worth of effects don’t make or break this sort of story. I was never fully convinced in the reality of these power-assisted acts, but I was caught up in Andrew, Matt and Steve’s awe at their new lives, and that was enough. When one’s self-doubt and insecurities begin to seriously fray his ability to live with the power I wanted an extra scene or two to really describe the arc of his fall, but I was still hooked by seeing this fractured friendship blown up to giant-size. (One scene nicely illustrates this character’s bent mindset; the killing of a spider is nearly a perfect image of how unimaginable ability has magnified character flaws that were in place long before.)
Dane DeHaan has an interesting role as Andrew, because he is the story’s prime motivator and by far the most interesting character. But because that story is primarily told through the lens of his camera, DeHaan isn’t on screen all that much. He makes every moment count, however, and his boyish grin and earnest energy in the early moments of power exploration create an appealing base for a character who has a lot of problems later on.
Alex Russell isn’t quite as strong — his performance is fine, and in the mentor role he’s stuck with a certain amount of narrative overhead — but never particularly detrimental. (I was unsatisfied with a subplot that brings him together with a cute girl who has a video camera of her own, however. Few elements in the film feel forced, but that is one.) And Michael B. Jordan has a grand time as the effortlessly confident Steve; his enthusiasm is quickly contagious.
That ‘found footage’ conceit takes a bit of getting used to — I can’t say I was ever not aware that the film was being constructed on that specific conceit. But Trank, his cinematographer Matthew Jensen and editor Elliot Greenberg, really make it work; screenwriter Max Landis chips in good ideas as well. Once Andrew starts to get a handle on his power, for example, he is able to float the camera in the air, allowing freedom of movement for the lens as well as a metaphoric layer that addresses how such power could lead to a sort of God complex.
Trank’s follow-through with the ‘found footage’ conceit also means that he tells this story without benefit of a score. I’m impressed by several aspects of the film, and the ability to create and maintain the story’s highs and lows without the easy go-to of sweeping cues is high on the list. Chronicle proclaims Josh Trank, Max Landis and Dane DeHaan as talents to watch, and beats big studio tentpoles at their own game.
/Film rating: 8 out of 10