“Chronicle” sounds like the most boring title imaginable for a film about a trio of teens that acquires superpowers of might, flight and telekinesis. And while the film has a sly sense of humor and an exhilarative sensation when it takes to the skies, its greatest strengths are far more earthbound.
It’s because director/co-writer Josh Trank and co-writer Max Landis give an unexpectedly thoughtful, poignant double meaning to the title of their outstanding feature debut.
Largely told from the first-person POV of a troubled boy testing the waters of teenage friendship, “Chronicle” is as much a psychological profile taken to grim extremes as it is a depiction of uncanny abilities. It doesn’t dabble in anything as simple as good versus evil. It weighs contentment versus empowerment, compassion versus confrontation, humility versus hubris, altruism versus aggression.
These choices aren’t simply more difficult to make. They’re not always so easily distinguishable. Wasting not one of its 83 minutes, “Chronicle” creates a compelling character study couched in comic-book wit, color and momentum.
“Chronicle” begins with a mirror-image reflection of Andrew (Dane DeHaan), who has bought a camera to document abuse from his father (veteran character actor Michael Kelly) — a former fireman who drinks away the pain of his wife’s terminal illness and the payments meant to provide for her prescriptions.
The details are horrifyingly accurate — an unpainted swath of re-plastered wall likely repaired after Andrew went through it and a dad too drunk to know (or, more disturbingly, to care) that his abuse is being recorded.
Andrew carries the camera everywhere in an effort to detach himself from his depressing life. Initially, it seems better suited to creep out cheerleaders and attract violent bullies. But perhaps what he posts online can gain sympathy from the anonymous online masses that he doesn’t seem to get from those he knows.
It’s here that “Chronicle,” without calling undue attention to itself, mulls the implications of the first-person film genre. To brand it a “found footage” movie is inaccurate and a bit insulting. “Chronicle” never strains under the bogus burden of making you believe what you’re seeing is true. It simply uses the inherently confessional qualities of the genre to create a compelling, character-driven story. (To boot, the cinematography is only nauseatingly handheld when necessary.)
Matt (Alex Russell), Andrew’s cousin, wants to connect with him, but struggles with finding the right words to say. Matt is a good guy trying hard to figure out what he wants to believe about life — quoting Arthur Schopenhauer and Jessie J in the same car ride and attributing equal philosophical merit to both.
Andrew reluctantly accompanies Matt to a party (where his roaming camera is decidedly unwelcome). And as Andrew cleans smudges from his lens outside, suave Steve (Michael B. Jordan) approaches him.
Steve is the guy for whom you sense a class-president victory will someday be the anecdotal talking point of a stump speech. He’s got a thing for faces and he remembers Andrew, albeit unremarkably, as “the guy with the gray hoodie.” Steve is genuinely likeable, and it’s refreshing to see a characterization of the “popular” guy as someone who’s inherently positive, not a posing jerk.
He’s also the adventurer, first to jump in a large sinkhole the trio finds in the woods outside the party house. Descending deeper into the earth, they discover a massive, radiant structure that gives them nosebleeds and, as we soon learn, great powers.
All of this is just the first 15 minutes. “Chronicle” only gets better. The camera finds Andrew, Matt and Steve honing their powers in an amusing prank montage that’s harmless until it is, in an instant, dangerous. And the way the script builds a bond between the three of them is as believable as the inevitably tragic way it will be severed.
Saying too much about where “Chronicle” winds up would dilute the thrills and confidence Trank and Landis display in getting there. (Yes, Landis is the son of funnyman filmmaker John Landis. And much as Jason Reitman did with “Thank You For Smoking,” he’s made a debut feature better than anything his old man has done in more than two decades.)
Some things worth noting, though: Kelly sends the story into a third-act stratosphere with a perfectly nailed monologue of sinister emotions and cruel manipulation. Trank and Landis never lose sight of the characters’ humanity as their powers (and the film’s visual effects) grow bigger. They find clever devices to expand the scope of Andrew’s camera. And the lyrics of “Ziggy Stardust” have never seemed so prophetically sad.
“Chronicle” is so close to perfect you’ll wish it hadn’t come to screeching halts in scenes with Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), Matt’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. Her glib flirtation and sassy backtalk seem as sleepy as her eyes. Quite simply, “Chronicle” doesn’t need her. DeHaan, Russell and Jordan deliver performances so authentic that caring about all three of them is sustenance enough.
You hope they find a way to harness their powers to elicit the qualities of leadership, confidence and peacefulness they seek. And you eventually recall, with an unexpected sadness, a quiet scene they share in a basement — insomniac from the high of discovering their powers and unanimously declaring it the best day of their lives.
First and foremost, “Chronicle” is the story of uncertain teenagers, not unstoppable superheroes. And the same qualities that make it unforgettable make Trank and Landis undeniable talents to watch.