The main conflict in Josh Trank’s Chronicle, believe it or not, does not lie between its three teenage protagonists (Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan) and their newfound superpowers.  Rather, it is the tension between the filmmakers’ desire to tell a psychologically bleak superhero origin story and the constraints of the “found footage” genre and if you groaned a little bit when you read that FF invocation, your instincts are sound.  For all of Chronicle‘s strengths (and let’s get something clear before the criticisms roll in: in many ways, this is one of the best superhero dramas of the last decade), it never completely solves the problems inherent to found footage.

Namely: how one explains a camera’s constant presence during the important narrative beats.  Trank bats about 50/50.  It makes sense that these kids would want to document their initial efforts at strengthening their telekinetic powers, and I liked how Trank uses the lens in order to convey DeHaan’s creeping psychosis; his troubled Andrew is filming everything even before he and his friends encounter the subterranean, glowing object that turns them into JV Justice League members (Andrew wants to capture his abusive father beating him on camera), and as his psychic control grows, Andrew has this unsettling way of making the camera independently circle him, thus recording – and glorifying – his isolation.

But the camera always feels like an invader (and worse: a narratively unjustified one) in Chronicle‘s smaller, more intimate moments, and you can sense Trank’s head smashing against the format as he keeps tossing in video formats to sufficiently document the carnage of film’s third act: a security camera here, an helicopter camera there, the errant iPhone cam.  That’s the great irony with “found footage.”  It purports to enhance the illusion of reality on screen, yet the moments where we are aware of Trank and DP Matthew Jensen contriving to make a camera essential to the drama are the ones where we are pulled most forcefully from the film’s reality.

The good news?  Pretty much everything else about Chronicle works like a charm.  Along with the screenwriter Max Landis (son of John Landis), Trank manages to synthesize many disparate elements – in no particular order: action-adventure, teen melodrama, comedy, Stephen King’s Carrie, a little Akira – into a satisfying and propulsive whole.  Superhero origin stories usually aren’t this….dangerous, and that’s because Trank and Landis recognize the perils of a mortal possessing immortal gifts.

Even before Andrew starts marshalling his powers to level downtown Seattle (big props to Trank, who makes his micro-budget project feel very macro in the destruction department), we’re on edge.  It’s exciting to watch these kids first learn they can fly, and it’s even more than a little funny when they prank each other or unsuspecting bystanders (moving cars into different spots in parking lots; lobbing baseballs at one another – “Jackass”-style – and trying to stop them with their minds).  But since humans are arrogant, fearful, and weak (and teenagers have those qualities supercharged), we wait for the worst.

It’s a testament to the actors that the violent conclusion works us over as well as it does.  Dane DeHaan gets the lion’s share of the screen time (90% of the movie is “filmed” from his perspective), and he’s immediately sympathetic.  We see how horrific his day-to-day life is; for Andrew, these powers offer an escape, a connection to friendship and normalcy that he’s never known.  DeHaan makes that need for human interaction palpable, which makes his eventual descent into Zod-territory all the more heartbreaking.

And Michael B. Jordan (best known for his work as doomed corner-boy Wallace in “The Wire” and as quarterback Vince Howard on “Friday Night Light”) is easily DeHaan’s equal; with a few deft strokes, Jordan gives his Steve Montgomery effortless charm and surprising gravitas: the golden boy whose steady composure hides emotional scars as deep as Andrew’s.  When Jordan leaves Chronicle at the two-thirds mark, the movie never quite recovers.

Only Russell’s easygoing Matt doesn’t pop the same way that DeHaan and Jordan do.  Russell is fine in the group scenes, but he has an affable blandness that doesn’t serve him well in his solo bits (Chronicle‘s other big misstep, in addition to the camerawork, is inventing a character – Ashley Hinshaw’s pretty videoblogger – as a means to give Matt more scenes without Andrew or Steve).  Still, Russell is serviceable, and his everyman quality works when the script needs a stereotypical “hero” at the climax.

That Chronicle makes it so far before bringing out the conventional white and black hats deserves praise; along with Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, it offers the most nuanced and affecting portrait of superhero life that I have seen in a long while.  This is the movie Hancock wanted to be: raw, exciting, and surprisingly bleak.

And without the “found footage” gimmick, it might have been a masterpiece.  Chronicle 2: you’re on notice.

Fox’s Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy set gives Chronicle an understandably variable digital transfer; the quality shifts depending on the quality of the camera filming a given scene.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is wonderful, with shifting clarity (taking into account the camera source) and all sorts of aural distortions when the boys unleash their superpowers.

Only the supplements underwhelm.  We get a superfluous deleted scene, some CGI animatics, a camera test, and the trailer.  The saving grace is the inclusion of the director’s cut, which restores nine minutes of vital character development and is far superior to the much-too-fleet theatrical version.

If nothing else, maybe Chronicle delivers the kill shot to the “found footage” genre; the film demonstrates that character and story always trump camera gimmicks, which just clutter the genuine human stakes in which Chronicle so expertly traffics.

Chronicle in now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Home Culture Movie Review: Gimmicky Camerawork Scars Otherwise-Excellent CHRONICLE