Directed by Josh Trank. Written by Max Landis and Trank. Starring Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly and Ashley Hinshaw. Rated PG-13. Running time: 83 minutes.
The last thing the world needs is another superhero origin story or "found footage" flick. Whether it's the moronic con job of The Last Exorcism or the ho-hum spectacle of Green Lantern, these genres are starting to move past their expiration date. In defiance of that claim, however, is Josh Trank's Chronicle, which shamelessly and somewhat successfully indulges in both conceits. Like a clever mash-up of Cloverfield, Heroes and Carrie, his debut manages to engage and, more amazingly, surprise. Not only does Trank have a real affinity for his characters, his instincts are pretty edgy, capturing the alienation, class rage and instability of teenage emotions.
Right from the beginning, Chronicle makes its nihilistic intentions clear, as teenage Andrew (Dane DeHaan) locks his bedroom door and shouts to his violently drunken father that, "I'm filming everything now." Which, of course, he does. Obsessively. And who could blame him? The camera becomes a way for him to disconnect from the harsh realities of his life — his mother is dying, dad is unemployed and seething with anger, bullies pick on him, and his sole personal relationship is with his awkwardly intellectual cousin, Matt (Alex Russell). It's a plausible (if self-conscious) conceit for Chronicle's hand-held approach, and it allows Trank to more effectively wield his $15 million budget.
Convinced to attend a rave with Matt, Andrew is enlisted to video something strange in the forest outside. The school's most popular kid, Steve (Michael B. Jordan), has discovered a hole in the ground, and when the three teens crawl in to investigate they find a glowing ... something or another. Their noses start to bleed, the camera frizzes out, and the kids panic before the screen goes black. When we see them next, they are experimenting with newfound telekinetic powers. This sets up Chronicle's cautionary tale about the power acquired but not earned, and its inevitable abuse.
At first, Max (son of John) Landis' script plods along, charting the none-too-imaginative attempts of Andrew, Matt and Steve to harness their supernatural abilities. From manipulating Legos to skipping stones to concocting lame pranks, their stunts seem too lackadaisical to be taken seriously. You can't help but feel like teenage boys would be doing more, pushing things further. (Haven't these guys ever watched Jackass?) The movie finally takes off, well, when the boys take off. As it turns out, telekinesis can be used to fly. Trank not only captures the giddy sense of freedom the trio encounters as they leave the ground, but he stages a wondrous and terrifying game of football amid the clouds. It's a bravura bit of directing that rivals any depiction of super-heroic flight put to film.
Eventually, we realize that the super bros have no interest in becoming "heroes," and instead use their powers to indulge in acts of teenage wish fulfillment. For Andrew, this means attaining popularity. But as any high school movie will tell you, this sets our troubled teen up for soul-crushing disaster. The cumulative effects of his broken home life, knee-jerk disaffection and inevitable humiliation send him to the edge as Chronicle launches into its super-powered third-act showdown.
It's here where Trank's faux-doc conceit both shines and stumbles. From a technical point of view, it energizes the knock-down, drag-out brawl that devastates downtown Seattle. Chronicle makes inventive use of camera angles — from tourists' video footage to police cameras to surveillance videos — to convey the hard, fast desperation of its final super slugfest. Brutal and, at times, gut-churning, it's the most exhilarating spectacle of urban destruction since Superman II.
Still, Chronicle's hand-held footage is often overly contrived, creating an artificiality that hampers the impact of the story. Not only are we asked to believe that Andrew would compulsively video every aspect of his life — even in the heat of battle — but also that incidental characters, particularly Matt's love interest, would do the same. Ultimately, the choice is distracting.
Luckily, the unknown cast is strong, bringing a sense of naturalism to the film's more clichéd plot turns. And Trank's empathy for Andrew's beaten-up psyche not only engrosses, it gives the movie a welcome shot of humanity (the saccharine-sweet ending notwithstanding). Similarly, DeHaan's brooding and gradually unraveling performance resonates even if Landis' script is more interested in explaining rather than exploring Andrew's murderous disaffection. With a short list of TV credits (including In Treatment and True Blood), the young star looks like a Photoshopped composite of young Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. And like Trank, who has been tapped to direct the Fantastic Four reboot, there's little doubt that a bigger career awaits.