starring Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan
written by Max Landis & Josh Trank and directed by Josh Trank
Rated PG-13 for intense action and violence, thematic material, some language, sexual content and teen drinking.

Three high school seniors, Andrew (DeHaan), a withdrawn outcast with a dark family life, Matt (Russell), his light-hearted, philosopher-quoting cousin, and Steve (Jordan) a popular, outgoing candidate for student body president, all gain telekinetic powers when they stumble upon a mysterious, pulsating object. As their powers grow, tensions and complications arise, all documented by Andrew’s video camera and other bits of found footage.

Orson Welles was only 26 when he made Citizen Kane, so it’s not hugely surprising that 26-year old writer/director Josh Trank has produced such a solid film (though certainly no Citizen Kane) with his feature debut. It would be more surprising to learn that this movie had come from someone older. From beginning to end, this feels like a story that emerged directly from fresh, raw experiences in an American public school during the last decade, mixed with the basic, premise-level conceits of comic books that have been around for far longer.

It would, however, be a mistake to call this a “superhero” movie when it’s really more of a “superpower” movie. Perhaps that seems like too fine of a distinction. A few days before I graduated from high school, I sat in a darkened theater with many of my friends and watched Spider-Man (2002) for the first time. Like Chronicle, Spider-Man is about a high school student who acquires superpowers and must then work out how to handle the enormous responsibility that accompanies them. But, because Spider-Man is a superhero movie, it explores this theme by having Peter Parker don a colorful costume and do battle with an equally-colorful supervillain, who (conveniently) comes into some superpowers of his own at around this same time. Chronicle, on the other hand, ventures to ask what a few real high schoolers attending a real high school (a justification for the well-worn “found footage” device) would actually do if they suddenly had such powers; a question that is simultaneously so compelling and so obvious one wonders immediately why no one has thought to ask it in a film before.

First, there’s basic juvenile mischief: they bean each other in the head with baseballs, use a leaf-blower to lift a girl’s skirt, prank various people in a store. But as they continue to experiment, they realize they’re getting stronger, and for at least one of them, a victim of bullying and insults everywhere he goes, that means a chance to go about righting all of the many things that are wrong with his life. Beyond the novelty of the superpower device, this journey opens up a sad window into the lives of contemporary teenagers, with all of its casual cruelty and pressures to indulge in the pleasure of the moment. Of course, there’s nothing here that we don’t already know, but there is a visceral immediacy that comes from the strong performances of the largely-unknown cast; most of all from Dane DeHaan’s ability to walk a thin line between sweet-but-misunderstood loner and twisted, bitter sociopath.

The use of “found footage,” which is as near as a film can come to the “first-person narration” approach to fiction, has by now been used so frequently that it may have begun to tax the patience of fans and detractors alike. The novelty of the form (which some would cite as its primary appeal) is long gone, and any use of it in a film now had better be well-justified by some necessity of the story being told, as it can no longer hope to captivate simply by being different. Although there is arguably some attempt to justify that choice here, the way the film is edited makes it seem that Trank wanted to have his cake and eat it, too.

Throughout Chronicle, the camera-wielding main characters come into contact with other cameras (we are, as a society, now constantly in danger of appearing on film at a moment’s notice no matter where we are), and those cameras are used to provide additional angles and perspectives on events. For example, there is a girl named Casey, who (like the boys) wields her camera everywhere she goes, ostensibly filming “for her blog,” although there seems to be no real rhyme or reason behind what she is recording. Her presence in any given scene allows the director to cut back and forth during conversations. Late in the film, during a major action sequence, Andrew telekinetically swipes an armload of iPhones and digital cameras and arranges them around himself, allowing Trank 360 degrees of possible angles to play with. And, even though there is a security camera in one unconscious character’s hospital room, the police set up a second camera at the foot of the bed which must be kept recording at all times even though no one is present, allowing for still more angles.

Thus, throughout the movie, it is difficult not to question why any given character would be compelled to film what is going on, particularly when what is being filmed is either highly incriminating or extremely inconvenient. Why (and how) would one of the teens expend the mental energy to levitate a camera around and film himself assaulting a gang of neighborhood thugs, for example? There is also a constant question of who assembled all of this footage, and how. Andrew’s original camera is lost some 15 minutes into the movie, buried deep underground, but we are able to watch everything that he filmed on it. Who went around and collected the dozen or so personal video recorders that Andrew films himself on during the climax? And how did they survive being dropped so many stories when he was done with them?

Questions like this are a constant distraction from the substance of the story itself, which must surely be a sign that the found footage device may not have been the best choice in this case. Still, this apparent attempt at “artiness” or “trendiness” aside, it’s hard to complain too loudly when there is bright, young talent (director, writer, and actors) collaborating on something that, in every other way, feels so fresh and original. Chronicle is a welcome break from the same-old superhero thing, if not from the same-old found footage thing, and I hope the filmmakers behind it have many more stories left to tell, and many more chances to tell them.

~ by Jared on February 5, 2012.

One Response to “Chronicle”

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