It's not hard to link the recent spate of "found footage" films to the phenomenon of YouTube-- more and more people are video taping their daily lives, so why not pretend some actual interesting stories popped up in there? But few found-footage films actually recreate the circumstances in which most people, kids especially, whip out the video camera. Whether bored at home and in the mood to spill his guts, or recording some particularly awesome stunt in the backyard with his pals, Chronicle's lead character Andrew (Dane DeHaan) establish a real reason to have the camera front and center, making this low-budget superpowers adventure feel more honest and intimate from the very start.
It doesn't last, unfortunately, and as the stakes rise in Chronicle the found footage-- which expands from Andrew's camera to a whole slew of phones and security cameras-- wears out its welcome. But Chronicle largely keeps up that sense of authenticity, and the movie's ragged feel is only appropriate for the barely known actors and newcomer writer/director who made it happen. Director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis cooked the story up together, clearly raised on a diet of superhero origin stories, and by tweaking the genre in the right places while providing the requisite thrills, they offer a canny little adventure with just enough verve to sail over its bumpier parts.
Andrew is our window into the story, the lonely kid with the camera coping with an abusive dad (Michael Kelly) and a slowly dying mom, but the story doesn't pick up until, by chance, he explores a mysterious cave in the company of his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and popular kid Steve (MIchael B. Jordan). The trio discovers some odd glowing alien-ish life form, Andrew's camera naturally goes on the fritz, and when he picks it back up all three boys have discovered they can move things with their minds. Jordan, a veteran of The Wire and Parenthood, is the most experienced of the actors and it shows; his natural charisma and enthusiasm for what these powers can do lifts the story out of Andrew's moping, though the more involved Andrew gets in developing his skills, it becomes clear his darkness will start winning out eventually.
It's a neat twist to see double-edged sword of super powers, where a troubled boy can choose to use it for good, like Peter Parker, or take his revenge on the world that's done him wrong-- Andrew probably thinks Magneto has a lot of good ideas. While that conflict nicely sets up the grand-scaled finale, the film's best parts are in the discovery, when the boys figure out how to fly and play football in the clouds, or run around a toy store playing pranks just slightly more advanced than your average high school nonsense. Chronicle works well within its limits, but I almost wish it were even smaller, allowing more possibilities of how telekinesis might help or hurt you in high school, rather than giving in to the demands of the more typical superhero movie third act.
With CGI effects that range from passable to glaring, and a found footage gimmick that eventual hurts more than it helps, Chronicle isn't a low-budget genre masterwork like Attack the Block, but it's also a whole lot better than many of the more traditional superhero movies we've seen. Lean and goal-oriented, with more than a few fresh ideas as well as an innate understanding of the hero's journey storytelling, Chronicle marks an auspicious debut for Trank and Landis, a strong argument for Michael B. Jordan as a bona fide movie star, and a promising future for DeHaan and Russell. These guys haven't quite transformed the superhero genre, but they seem capable of that-- or pretty much anything else.