Found-footage movies have become something of a hot commodity since the innovation of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. But with the ultimately poor execution of the recent The Devil Inside and now with next month’s Project X and a Paranormal Activity 4 on the way, the concept is beginning to run its course. Auspiciously, the feature debut from 27-year-old filmmaker Josh Trank, Chronicle, sets a new standard for the genre. Based on what Trank has accomplished here, bigger-budgeted studio movies need to step up their game. Like a bolt from the blue, Chronicle is a nifty game-changer that will drop your jaw over and over.
Withdrawn Seattle outcast Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) is routinely bullied at his high school and abused by his alcoholic, firefighter-on-disability father (Michael Kelly). His mother, meanwhile, is slowly dying. “I’m filming everything here on out,” Andrew says to his father as he sets up a video camera in his bedroom and decides to document his day-to-day life. Andrew’s only friend, cousin Matt (Alex Russell), drags him to a rave party, where the popular Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) discovers a hole in the ground of a clearing in the forest and asks Andrew to check it out with him and Matt. The three are drawn to the hole, which gives off a loud echoing noise and deep inside is a mysterious, glowing object. After touching it, they feel a little different, inheriting telekinetic powers. Testing it out on each other and then on others as childish pranks, it’s all fun and games for a while, until Andrew loses his temper and takes it too far.
The object in the hole is merely a MacGuffin. Is it alien? Probably, but it pales in importance next to their newfound powers that the three characters obtain. More important (for a while at least) is Andrew, Matt, and Steve forming a bond over their telekinesis. They come from diverse social circles, especially Andrew, but Steve actually gives Andrew the time of day. Realizing their abilities extend to flying, Andrew feels so close to these guys that he expresses his interest in traveling to Tibet for its peaceful tranquility. Their first flying test in the clouds and a close-call with an airplane is genuinely exciting and startling. A lot of the movie is like that, where you constantly wonder how the filmmakers did the effects. Even if it was probably done on laptops, a game of football in the clouds feels so tangibly real.
Director Trank and screenwriter Max Landis developed the story for Chronicle, and even on the sole basis of a premise, it’s a cool hook. To call it Carrie by way of Cloverfield would be selling it short. Though it’s something of a superhero origin story, the three characters refreshingly don’t use their powers to save the world. No, they use their “gift” to scare department-store shoppers, blow up pretty girls’ skirts, and generally move objects with their mind. In that regard, the movie has a mischievious playfulness about it. But once Andrew goes haywire with the powers for personal reasons, it becomes a dark nerd’s revenge without any pig blood. The first-person documentation seems like it would be none other than a tired, unnecessary gimmick, but for a teenage alienation story, it feels like the right approach. One ingeniously conceived idea by the filmmakers is to have Andrew control the camera with his mind so it can float. That does away with the senselessly chaotic camera-shaking regularly featured in the glut of found-footage movies. Only does Trank strain the coverage a bit when the downtown Seattle-set climax becomes insanely destructive and a variety of cameras are still able to catch it all. Even Matt’s ex-girlfriend, Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), always filming after-school-hour events for her blog, feels stretched in this section of the movie. It’s distracting at first, but never less thrilling. Then, once the brilliantly staged and written final scene comes around, it’s poignant since we’ve had investment in this relatable trio.
The up-and-coming actors playing Andrew, Matt, and Steve are impressive and engaging. Dane DeHaan, as Andrew, assuredly reminds of Leonardo DiCaprio from his This Boy’s Life era. He makes his painful domestic life (that of his father’s abuse and mother’s illness) emotionally tough and expresses that he wants to keep up a social barrier. Then once Andrew’s inner hostility rears its head, DeHaan makes the character’s arc into madness heartbreaking and terrifying that he almost has the “apex predator” mindset of the Columbine killers. One intimate, ominously beautiful moment has Andrew laying on the sun-drenched floor, with the sounds of his mother’s coughs coming from the other room, and toying with a spider, which he lifts into the air and breaks into pieces. Alex Russell, resembling Chris Evans, has normal-guy charisma to spare in the role of Matt. This character reads about philosophy and shares his ideas to Andrew, which goes to show that movie teens can actually have conversations with substance. In the “big man on the campus” part, Michael B. Jordan lends magnetism and some surprising compassion to his Steve, who’s the most comfortable in his own skin.
Clever, exciting, emotional, and awesome, this teen-misfit sci-fi crossover in home-video format springs so many surprises on us that it’s worthy of a “wow.” Because of Chronicle, future found-footage movies might need to think of retiring the gimmick unless they bring anything original to the party as this one does.
83 min., rated PG-13.
GRADE: A –