The found-footage methodology has always been more of a gimmick than an artistically motivated aesthetic. The Blair Witch Project tried to fool the audience into believing what they were watching was real. Paranormal Activity took your average home videos and gave them a disturbing supernatural twist. Two examples from last year—Apollo 18 and The Devil Inside—were purely monetary endeavors, cashing in on a visual style that’s already proven cheap to produce and highly profitable.
Chronicle was made in a documentary style, appears to be shot completely through diegetic handheld cameras, and is, like a predictable Hollywood hybrid, about three teenagers who get superpowers. It is something of an anomaly. Consider: other than the mawkish and lame-brained Nicholas Sparks’ book adaptations, found-footage and superhero movies are the nightwalkers of Hollywood studio output. Blair Witch meets X-Men? Chronicle is like a double-sellout. But amazingly, through it all, the film actually has something vital to say, and says it in a style that, however gimmicky, feels at no point superfluous.
Central to Chronicle is Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), an alienated Seattle teen who decides, for whatever reason, to start bringing a camera around with him wherever he goes. The first minutes of the film are like a documentary you might see on A&E. Andrew is picked on at school, eats lunch alone on the stadium bleachers, and even his more popular but arrogant cousin Matt (Alex Russell) thinks he’s weird. Worse than that, his mother is in the final stages of hospice from an undetermined illness—probably cancer—and his father is dealing with the stress by slapping him around.
Andrew is a volcano about to erupt, an isolated and dejected adolescent whose camera has become a buffer to protect his sensitive soul from the unfeeling world. He’s one of those observant people that prefer to view life from afar as opposed to participating in it. His decision to chronicle his existence seems like the last desperate act of an introvert collapsing into himself—his viewfinder peering in by looking out.
Chronicle never stays in one place for too long, however. After being persuaded to go to a warehouse rave out in the woods, where Andrew instantly feels out-of-place, Matt and the class over-achiever, Steve (Michael B. Jordan), lead him to an underground catacomb where a mysterious glowing rock formation (maybe a product of radioactive spillage… maybe aliens) sits below the earth and proceeds to give them all nose bleeds. The next day they’re floating LEGOS with their minds, freaking out Walmart patrons by sending them running after their shopping carts, and, not too long later, soaring through the clouds with the power to levitate their own bodies.
From that point on, there are innumerable clever and topical things about Chronicle. Matt’s got a crush on the cute blonde blogger Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) who carries around her own camera. While they meet cute, they film each other, and the movie cuts between their points of view, reinventing the shot-reverse-shot like I’ve never seen. When the boys fuss around with their newfound powers, they’re like school kids playing with firecrackers, and the way they react to the camera recalls the last YouTube video you saw where a bunch of punks put Mentos in a Coke bottle, shook it up, and watched it explode. They laugh and cheer and go wild. For a while, Chronicle is comedic and fun loving, whimsical even, a teenager’s superpower fantasy reeking with verisimilitude.
Directed with wit and kinetic flow by Josh Trank (it was written by Trank and Max Landis), the film is never afraid to turn considerably darker at a moment’s notice. The story still revolves around Andrew, who finally has control over something for the very first time in his life. When he learns the finesse to float his camera up over his head, it no longer becomes his lens, but a separate entity. When he starts talking to it like it’s another person, he could be crying out to us, the audience, or simply addressing his new best friend and accomplice: a piece of high-tech machinery.
Stan Lee’s paragon for the angst-ridden-teen-with-superpowers concept is still the standard, but Stephen King’s Carrie added a new dimension by turning it into a revenge-driven horror show. Will Andrew channel his power for good? Or will he unleash it at the Prom with the fury of a thousand hate-filled webcasters?It’s only in the final city-demolishing showdown that the movie loses a little bit of its perceptive edge. We’re no longer inside the tech-crazed mind of the deranged American teenager; we’re watching a Hancock-like action sequence that’s impressive on a technical level, but forgets the golden rule: Characters come first. (Although there is an inspired moment where one of the guys surrounds his hovering self with floating camera phones, and, for the first time in the movie, the scene cuts to every possible angle, visually confirming that he’s finally the center of attention.) It’s fair to say the film stumbles on the follow through. But, other than that, Chronicle is not merely entertaining. It transcends its found-footage and superhero roots to become something so artistically considerable, that even though it’s a Hollywood attempt to sell out twice over, it somehow lifts off into the upper stratosphere instead.