Chronicle director Josh Trank deserves unquestioned accolades if only for how deftly he weaves together two tired ideas– found footage narratives and superhero origin stories– and ends up with something fresh and engaging. Frankly, he cheats at both (though more at the former than the latter), but when your primary cast members can levitate the camera and operate it with the confidence of a veteran cinematographer, you’d be foolish not to capitalize on the extra leeway. Oh, sure, Chronicle looks like a found footage movie, and the note on which it ends definitely earns the very literal meaning of the term, but Trank only just runs with the conceit; his film is more like clever, assured subversion than the real thing.
Which ultimately proves invigorating. Chronicle, like any other found footage movie, has to have a good reason to keep the cameras rolling; Trank produces one right away by introducing us to Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a lonely teenager who has decided to constantly film his daily life. That, of course, consists of the receipt of abuse both verbal and physical everywhere he goes– whether he’s at home or at school, Andrew’s never really safe from harassment or harm. And he films all of it. There’s something admirable about his devotion to capturing his suffering, but the end result is that we come to feel genuine pity for the boy.
Until, of course, his fortunes change. Chronicle plays like a companion piece to Bully until Andrew, along with his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and the enormously popular Steve (Michael B. Jordan) come across a whole in the ground that contains a very large, very incandescent crystal which confers superpowers upon the teen trio. Before long, the boys are flying, lifting objects, causing mischief, and generally reveling in their gifts, but every superhero story needs a villain, and it quickly becomes apparent that Andrew doesn’t have an Uncle Ben in his life to influence his ideology.
On paper, that just sounds like a big, boring origin story, but Trank appears to be keenly aware of superhero tropes and how to make them work to his advantage. Think for but a moment on why Peter Parker is such a celebrated comic book hero; he’s relatable, a regular kid burdened with enormous responsibility in his youth while also dealing with his status as a social outsider. But when Sam Raimi transplanted the character from page to screen, he knew well enough that he couldn’t rely on (dangerous) presumptions of audience empathy. And Trank clearly realizes that, too, because he spends most of Chronicle building Andrew, Matt, and Steve as characters and investing us in them. We get to know who they are. We get to see where they come from. Finally, we come to care about them, so when the third act rolls around and Trank starts pulling the trigger on Chekov’s alien superpowers in meaningful, dramatic ways, Chronicle hits home.
This is organic, considered, and lean storytelling. Chronicle only clocks in at a hair over eighty minutes of running time, but that’s because Trank only needs eighty minutes to nurture his characters and develop his plot; it’s a feat, then, that he manages to mold the boys into robust figures rather than cardboard cutouts. Another filmmaker might have made a point of getting to the spectacle as quickly as possible without letting the important elements of the picture breathe– and Chronicle does indeed end on a pretty spectacular note. But Trank, supplied with a script from Max “Son Of John” Landis, plays it smart. A superhero film isn’t just an excuse for high-flying mayhem. Character and theme both matter far, far more.
In fact, that aforementioned and much-anticipated spectacle doesn’t work half as well without them. Chronicle could have wound up a very different film in which teens, endowed with god-like powers, do battle with one another only because the story decrees that they must. Instead, they grapple because that’s just the situation that the events of the story– wrought by their actions– lead them into, and the results are surprisingly powerful. Andrew’s story, which serves as Chronicle‘s core from start to finish, reads as tragedy, a rise-and-fall journey that gives the lad just enough rope to climb out of one hole before cutting the cord and dropping him into an even deeper one. As a self-styled apex predator, Andrew is terrifying, but he’s also deeply sad. We do not want him to make the choices he makes, yet we’re totally cognizant of the influences in his life that shape him into the person he becomes in Chronicle’s climax.
DeHaan is himself something of a revelation. To my knowledge, Chronicle marks his first starring role in a feature-length film– he’s had guest spots on shows like True Blood and In Treatment– but he shoulders the burden with remarkable ease. DeHaan runs the gamut here, in turns exuding vulnerability and fragility, exuberance and joy, vengeful spite and animal outrage. He feels as natural jetting across the sky with his friends as he does causing mass-destruction downtown. Coupled with the supporting turns from Russell and Jordan, Chronicle feels admirably complete; they architect a well-rounded, thoroughly convincing friendship amongst themselves. Few superhero movies in the last couple of years can claim to have such a well-realized central camaraderie, and fewer still unravel it so carefully.
You may not be thinking of any of this, by the way, as Chronicle literally explodes into its finale. Cleverly, Trank keeps the action rolling by swapping perspectives at a constant clip– the movie moves from Andrew’s camera and into the camera phones of passerby witnessing the carnage unfold, or security cameras fastened to one spot, observing only a moment in the film’s ending clash. Buses get tossed around like footballs, streets crack, buildings crumble, witnesses get knocked over like rag dolls. But those visceral thrills just make up one of Chronicle’s essential ingredients; in the end, it’s the human details that make the film great.