Chronicle is yet another addition to the “found footage” subgenre, following on in the tradition of The Blair Witch Projectand the Paranormal Activity series whereby movies claim to be authentic footage captured by real people. We’ve seen horror films and monster movies done in such a style, so Chronicle does something different: it presents a trademark found footage spin on the superhero genre. Produced for a scant $12 million, this is a creative, well-made little gem which doesn’t overlook the importance of storytelling and character. See, more than just a brainless blockbuster about superheroes, Chronicle is a story about the fragile nature of teenage minds and the friendships we form during high school years. Freshman director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis demonstrate an astute understanding of these issues, giving the film a tremendous emotional boost not often seen in superhero movies.
Andrew (DeHaan) is a viciously bullied, lonely and depressed high school senior with an abusive home life. Fed up with his unfair treatment, Andrew purchases a camera to record every step of his life, and grows to adore the confessional opportunities provided by his new camcorder. After a humiliating episode at a party one night, Andrew’s cousin Matt (Russell) and classmate Steve (Jordan) take Andrew as they venture into a mysterious underground tunnel. Inside, the trio find an alien contraption which knocks them all unconscious. The next day, the boys find that they have telekinetic powers, and can use their minds to manipulate whatever objects they wish. But the euphoric honeymoon does not last very long, as Andrew’s problems continue to take their toll on his delicate mental state and friendships begin to splinter.
Since certain limitations are inherent in the found footage gimmick and we can only see things through the eyes of the characters, the source of the boys’ superhuman powers is never explored in any great depth. And that’s fine - Chronicle is not a pretentious piece of sci-fi; it’s a film about what would happen if confused teenagers inherited amazing abilities. Landis and Trank embraced the chance to explore the possibilities of young teens with telekinetic powers, tracking the boys as they create a new realm of wish-fulfilment, prank and play previously deemed impossible. Indeed, unlike Peter Parker, the philosophy of “with great power comes great responsibility” is not exactly on the boys’ minds as they enjoy their newfound abilities. Acquiring super-powers doesn’t exactly mean that you get a sound moral compass as well, so Chronicle spends time provocatively examining the psychological problems of becoming God. Additionally, Landis’ script takes a close look at the cracks which form in Andrew’s psychological state, watching as he grows from depressed loner to powerful God-like being fuelled by his potent domestic troubles.
The question of “Why do they keep filming?” often causes found footage movies to crumble, but Chronicle introduces a few creative solutions to this nagging question. On a few occasions, for instance, Andrew uses telekinesis to fly the camera around him. And once the film shifts gears into full-on mayhem, we see events unfold though phones, security cameras and other home camcorders, with Trank embracing the fact that cameras are literally everywhere in this day and age (though Andrew’s camera is set up in an odd spot in a hospital, stretching credulity). Most found footage flicks eschew lavish spectacle under the guise of “realism”, but Trank ensures that we don’t walk away hungry. Indeed, after dealing with teenage neuroses for a good 60 minutes, Trank ventures into more violent territory for a stunning climax that may cause Hollywood’s best action directors to weep with envy. The finale is simply magnificent; a combination of a Greek tragedy and an insane roller-coaster ride which nails the balance between pathos and fantasy. The budget was low, yet the special effects are highly effective. Chronicle is at times harrowing as well – Trank truly tested the limits of the PG-13 rating while exploring Andrew’s destructive capabilities.
Naturalistic performances are the most critical constituent of any found footage movie, as any trace of artifice destroys the illusion. Fortunately, Chronicle nails this requirement, boasting a cast of unknown actors who inhabited their roles to terrific effect. Dane DeHaan is simply a revelation here as Andrew – he’s utterly convincing as both the depressed social outsider and the vengeful superhuman. A less talented performer would have leaned on shrill melodrama, but DeHaan is too good for such lazy shortcuts. Meanwhile, Alex Russell is believable and charming as Andrew’s cousin Matt, and Michael B. Jordan is charm personified as the popular Steve. The three leads share an effortless camaraderie which feels completely authentic.
Chronicle more or less represents a merger of The Breakfast Club and a typical “birth of a hero/villain” tale. The result is an exciting motion picture which will also resonate with anyone who found high school to be a place of social misery. Admittedly, a few of Chronicle‘s narrative elements are a bit too standard-order (including a character death to up the stakes which doesn’t sit right) and one gets the sense that Trank and Landis could have done more (the film runs a scant 75 minutes). Nevertheless, the film is a superb effort by everyone involved, heralding the arrival of a new filmmaking talent in the shape of Josh Trank, who’ll soon be offered every single superhero movie currently in development.