I’m not an expert on comic books, but the basic mythos of superheroes has permeated pop culture to an extent that everyone knows that superhero stories are often focused on outsiders. People who find themselves on the outskirts of society suddenly come into possession of extraordinary gifts and their lives are forever changed by them. A lot of these people use their new abilities to help society and make the world a better place.
And some of them want to blow it up real good to get revenge for years of torment.
The latter concept is at the core of “Chronicle,” the explosive, low-tech triumph written by Max Landis (son of John Landis, the director of Blues Brothers and Animal House) and directed by first-timer Josh Trank. They strip the superhero origin story to it’s core, applies it to the trauma of high school, using the found-footage gimmick that has dominated the landscape for the past few years.
But “Chronicle” is only a found-footage movie on the surface. Technically, we see the footage as it is happening. This footage is being captured by Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a high school misfit living in Seattle who buys a camera and starts recording every aspect of his troubled life. His father (Michael Kelly) is an abusive drunk, his mother is dying and he constantly bullied at school. The only person he talks to is his philosophical cousin Matt (Alex Russell), who hangs out with the brash, popular Steve (Michael B. Jordan, that’s right, Wallace from “The Wire” is all grown up). Andrew can’t escape bullies at school, and the fact that is now carrying a camera everywhere makes him even more of an outsider. Matt convinces Andrew to go to a party with him and Steve, and after a walk in the woods they find a crater in the ground, containing some kind of alien life craft. After making contact with this unexplained spacecraft, the three notice something very strange: they can move things with their minds.
Andrew’s camera documents the three of them trying out their newfound abilities. They pull pranks on people in a toy store, blow up girls’ skirts and eventually teach themselves to fly. They give themselves rules so they don’t lose control of themselves. Andrew and Steve even have a magic act in the school talent show that makes them the most popular kids in school. But Andrew’s life doesn’t get much better. The popularity he receives is fleeting, and the bullying continues. His father becomes more abusive as his mother’s condition worsens. After he causes a car to careen off of the road, he starts using his powers to change his station in life, and take revenge all who torment him.
This is hardly a new storytelling conceit: “Chronicle” borrows from older film such as Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “Carrie” and even Katsuhiro Ohtomo’s legendary anime “Akira.” Both of them dealt with abused teenagers using powers, which grow as unstable as their emotions. It is frustrating that Steve and Matt are one-dimensional characters, but Andrew is a well-drawn tragic character. Dane DeHaan, who looks a lot like a young Leonardo DiCaprio, gives an excellent performance, playing a troubled soul who uses his powers as an extension of his barely contained rage, with literally explosive consequences.
But the real breakout talent of “Chronicle” is the director, Josh Trank. With a miniscule budget, he made “Chronicle” infinitely more thrilling than the bloated, empty blockbusters that we have to wade through every summer. He does this by busting through the constraints of the movie’s “gimmick.” As I said, this isn’t quite a found-footage movie; it’s more like cinema verite on steroids. Regardless, Trank and Landis integrate the movie’s unique point-of-view (every shot is seen through a camera within the movie) into the story. As a result, the camerawork in this movie is astonishing, given the circumstances. Andrew figures out how to make his camera levitate, so we literally get to see the camera float through scenes. It’s hard to watch scenes where Andrew is alone in his bedroom, slowly moving the camera around the space above his bed without being amazed. Or when the trio takes to the skies in flight, we are soaring through the clouds with them. Great directors are able to bend genres and budgetary limitations to their will to create something unique; Trank has mastered that process on his first try.
The movie does end with half of downtown Seattle getting decimated in an obligatory final battle, but it is still more than satisfying. “Chronicle” is a reminder that “truth, justice and the American Way” are not always the top priorities of empowered teenagers. It is teenage angst blown up to a gargantuan scale, and it is a showcase for a director and screenwriter who have one hell of a future.