Found footage seems to be the bullet timing of the TwentytTeens. Instead of standard cinematography, we now get these narrative fauxmentary mockups — complete with epileptic shakey-cam and people just randomly expositioning to the camera. The first few times it was fun. No, it wasn’t. It was never ever fun. And while we’ve been treated to a Godzilla rampage (Cloverfield) and a teen sex “comedy” (The Virginity Hit), and countless horror films (The Last Broadcast, The Blair Witch Project, the numerous Paranormal Activity films, The Devil Inside, The Last Exorcism, Trollhunter, et cetera, et cetera, expectorate, ptui) now we’ve turned the cameras on the superhero genre. They coupled found footage with the other hot trend — giving young teens and twentysomethings supernatural powers. And so we end up with Chronicle, the story of three high school students who suddenly develop telekinesis. (That’s levitation, homes.) It’s a much better film than it deserves to be, Carrie by way of Cloverfield, held aloft by surprisingly dark drama and excellent acting. The real flaw is the use of the constant documentation ala the found footage gimmick. The constant fourth wall motif totally takes you out of the narrative, and several of the shots and setups really force the issue. I get it, I get it — if they weren’t videotaping everything the whole time, it wouldn’t really be a “chronicle.” But what it would have been would be an outstanding and original superhero origin story. Besides, nothing good ever came from being a Chronicle: Riddick, Narnia, Sarah Connor, or Spiderwick.
We first meet our loser hero Andrew (Dane DeHaan) as he videotapes his drunk out-of-work firefighter father (Michael Kelly) trying to break down the door, while in the background, Andrew’s mother (Bo Peterson) coughs herself to consumption in the other room. Andrew rides to school with his probably stoner cousin Matt (Alex Russell), who spouts first year undergrad philosopher quotes. A day in the life of Andrew means getting picked on, mocked for being creepy, and is wristcuttingly emo. Matt insists they go to a party — which even in Seattle means for some reason that it a) takes place in a barn, b) involves glowsticks and blacklights and a DJ, and c) is full of about a hundred people holding red Solo cups. I lived near Amish country, and no high school kegger involved farmraves and MDMA & M. But this gives them a second opportunity to make Andrew out to be a loser and to introduce the all-star athlete senior class president Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan, Wallace from “The Wire”). He’s black, and it’s never brought up as a plot point or narrative conceit. Here’s a hug, filmmakers.
So for some reason, Matt gets Steve to get Andrew to bring his camera and come explore a weird hole they found out in the middle of the woods. This leads to them finding a mysterious glowing crystal like substance thing and then there’s a lot of shouting and anime-seizure flashes and dropped camera digitalis and then BOOM, superpowers. It’s that quick, and, again, a great move. We don’t spend all this time worrying about radioactive spiders or mysterious green ooze or alien technology. It’s all about the three boys discovering their superpowers and what they can do with them. This is by far and away the strongest and most entertaining portion of the film. There’s a terrific camaraderie between the three leads, and it’s fun watching them play around like seventeen year old boys would, with a lot of laughing and since it’s PG-13, shoutings of “Oh, shit.”
Writer Max Landis and director Josh Trank could have gone a lot of ways with the narrative at this point. Do they become vigilante crime fighters ala Super? Do they start committing crimes? Do they use their powers to get girls and popularity? Landis and Trank opt for making it Andrew’s story, one of absolute power corrupting. The plotting’s a bit “Saved By The Bell” — you know, if Screech suddenly developed the ability to hurl Mr. Belding angrily into lockers with mindbullets. But much like Carrie, it’s buoyed by a dynamic performance by DeHaan, who looks like Hugo Weaving skinned Gilbert Grape -era Leonardo DiCaprio and wore him like DiCaprio wore the skinned flank of that dancing Six Flags Vengabus old man in J. Edgar. When DeHaan starts to break, it’s fucking creepy. It’s just a shame that we have to watch it through the stupid lens of the ever present shaky-docu-cam.
The found footage angle really does force the filmmakers to go some dumbass places. For example, Matt’s love interest Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) is a video blogger, so she’s also constantly carrying around a camera for all her scenes. Why that footage is somehow cut into the film, along with various instances of traffic cams, security footage and police dashboard cameras makes little to no sense. Unless, they decide to do a sequel in which we eventually discover that all of the footage from the film was collected by the government in a effort to pretty much mask the effects of the mysterious crystals and that the CIA has liquidated the entire graduating class of 2012 and a major portion of Seattle’s population. In which case, I’m first in line with high fives and hotcakes for Landis and Trank. Otherwise, there are too many unnecessary moments where the cameras just happen to be rolling to capture a convenient and trite plot advancement or character expansion. Which is hilarious, because aside from Andrew, we know fuck all about everyone else in the film other than the most cursory of details. Especially for the female characters, who exist solely for the boys to make googly eyes at.
Chronicle, while skirting lots of familiar and well-trod territory, does an admirable job. Again, Andrew is an excellent hook upon which to hang the story, and the fun of finding out what their new powers can do makes for a good time. Unfortunately, in an attempt to stay fresh, Landis and Trank go for the fauxumentary, and it fauxing distracts. The cast is quite good, particularly DeHaan and Michael Kelly as the drunken dad. But if you’re expecting a light hearted little superhero story, be prepared. Chronicle goes for some dark and unsettling drama. Some of the dialogue seems forced and trite, but there are enough excellent moments to keep the film soaring. And while you won’t be leaving cheering and adrenalised, there have been plenty worse crimes committed in the name of superpowers. At least no one’s sporting bat nipples.