Shortly after Peter Parker suffered a bite from a radioactive spider, he took on his newfound powers in the name of greater good. “With great power comes great responsibility,” his uncle intoned; he sure believed it.
In “Chronicle,” three teenage boys stumble upon a meteor crater, or an untapped crystal mine, or something — the question here is worth more than the answer. From it they receive a slew of great powers including flying, telekinesis and super strength. Their idea of “great responsibility” is levitating teddy bears at toy stores, flipping up girls’ skirts and playing football in the troposphere.
This is not a film strictly about superpowers in the wrong hands. Nor is it another “Blair Witch Project” or “Cloverfield,” as its home video premise and handheld work would imply. “Chronicle” works on two levels: it presses some well-known truths about teen social politics with a fresh, sympathetic, even unnerving accuracy, and it demonstrates the simple brilliance of a movie that, with a first-time director, unknown cast and (relatively) small budget makes all the right choices and fits together into a powerful, mesmerizing whole.
Before the levitation and teenage magic, we begin with Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), a high school senior horribly abused by life. His circumstances are extreme — an alcoholic father, a cancer-addled mother, constant bullying and a bad antisocial streak — but his method of dealing with it is immediate and grounding. He buys a camera with the intention of chronicling his day-to-day life. Why? Even Andrew can’t say, though there are hints. “Who says I don’t want a barrier between me and the world?” he tells one person. Video happens to be that barrier.
His only real friend is cousin Matt (Alex Russell), not at the top of the social food chain but doing all right. He’s studious, interested in philosophy and quietly smitten with classmate blogger Casey (Ashley Hinshaw). With Andrew and would-be class president Steve (Michael B. Jordan), he obtains powers that seem to be the coolest thing ever, but even he understands restraint. He makes sure to outline a set of rules on their powers: no using them on other people, in public or with malicious intent.
It seems that simple at first. The powers are fun and innocent.. But soon Andrew’s social anxiety creeps through his superhero wrappings. He doesn’t become a supervillain, not as we expect. Worse. He’s what the Columbine shooters and Seung-Hui Cho imagined themselves to be in their most delirious fantasies: a Social Darwinist killing machine.
To that end, “Chronicle” resembles the little-seen, equally stellar “Zero Day,” a film also assembled from home video, security footage and other physical world film sources. It depicted a pair of teens preparing for a Columbine-style massacre. At times Andrew chillingly draws upon their habits, casually discussing how to psychically pull out teeth like the shooters of “Zero’s Day” pored over their gun collection.
It’s all on the actors to make these characters, and their psychological dilemmas, radiate. DeHaan as Andrew is a real find: a pale, moptop ghost, withdrawn enough to be picked upon as the local punching bag. But when he discovers the powers at his fingertips … the smile on his face! To realize he is not a human pinball but a sovereign, a power.
Russell and Jordan also serve their characters well, breaking them away from archetype into flesh and blood and they’re aided by a sharp-eared script by Max Landis. Behind the sci-fi conceit, this is a far simpler story, a cautionary tale against all the oppression that weighs down on the average high school student.
Director Josh Trank also deserves respect: the special effects, including a camera that floats by itself and various objects flying about, are always convincing, and the “real footage” angle is wisely used as an aesthetic choice, not just pretension towards realistic cinema.
Trank doesn’t particularly care if this footage can be viewed after the film’s events — most of it is destroyed or inaccessible by the end — or even if it makes sense: would a cell phone camera be so still while Seattle is crumbling around it?
How can an over-the-counter camcorder survive being whipped through the clouds? All wrong questions. It’s more important to “Chronicle” that some camera be present — be it a handheld, security camera or news footage — and accessible in that moment. It’s the ease of artificial cinema with the authenticity and immediate emotion of documentary, a blend that Trank perfects to the borderline.
A few weeks back we got “The Grey,” a startlingly smart thriller. Now “Chronicle” drives in the point that January doesn’t have to be cinema’s dud month. It can be a time for human-driven, clever, genre films, near-masterpieces of their field.