Josh Trank’s debut feature Chronicle is a nice spin on the typical superhero origin story. It’s such a nice spin that, until late in the film when it makes blatant nods towards that direction, it could be any old found-footage horror movie with vaguely supernatural things happening to a small cast of teens. It starts with Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a loner high-school senior, getting his hands on a video camera with which to document his life, which is certainly not going well. His father (Michael Kelly) is a drunk, abusive man. His mother (Bo Peterson) is dying. When he goes to school, things aren’t much better. He’s ignored, or worse, bullied. When his popular, extroverted cousin (Alex Russell) invites him to a cool party, he reluctantly takes the chance to get out of the house.
At the party, he, his cousin, and another popular senior (Michael B. Jordan) head out into the woods to explore a mysterious hole in the ground. We follow the shakily filmed teens down into the hole where they find a massive glowing blue crystalline wall (government secret? alien artifact?) that makes their noses bleed and the camera go all screwy. The screen goes black. When it comes back to life, Andrew has a new camera. We see the three guys playing catch. But it’s not quite that simple. Soon it’s apparent that the ball they’re throwing is veering off at weird angles or even stopping mid-flight, hovering in the air. They’re controlling the ball with their minds. Then one of them notices a small trickle of blood leaking out one nostril.
The teens explore their newfound telekinetic powers in a casual, goofy way that feels more or less the way actual teenage guys would handle the situation. Do you really think they’d head right out to fight crime? That’s a superhero trope that’s nicely cast aside here as they wander around town playing pranks, roughhousing, taunting bullies and trying to get girls. It’s all so simple, but the found-footage style (albeit deployed in a way that grows increasingly strained) gives a shaky verisimilitude to the kinds of powers we’ve seen many times before. When one of the guys discovers that they can levitate themselves – flying, actually – the way they try it out made me actually concerned they’d fall. When was the last time I was afraid some superpowered character would drop out of the sky? Maybe never.
There’s a winning lack of confidence to these characters, a halting sense of bewildered and astonished improvisation with their new abilities. Especially with Andrew, a sullen kid who gets powers and a new group of friends in the very same instant, the film gets good use out of its central metaphor of superpowers being an unstable aspect of adolescent id within an overwhelming sense of change. The screenplay by Max Landis (son of John) can be (but isn’t always) especially acute in the way it deals with the shifting emotions of its three leads.
Where the film starts to fall apart, when the small sense of disappointment sets in, is when it becomes just another superhero movie. It’s still found footage, but the commitment to believable shots (such a crucial, enjoyable aspect in Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity movies) starts to slip away. And, though the characters are still just regular teens with special abilities and nary a mask, cape, or latex suit in sight, the climax of the story hinges on yet another sequence in which guys beat up on each other with their superpowers. I was engaged and intrigued by the film for so long, enjoying ways that it tweaked teen movie moments like a party or a school talent show with an injection of supernatural powers, that when it sinks into cliché it’s all the more frustrating. That said, the climactic battle plays out with more weight and impact than you usually find. The stakes feel real and though the blows between the combatants feel CGI weightless, the collateral damage has a believable immediacy to it. But I couldn’t help but wonder who could have possibly found all of this footage (expanding from the simple camera to a host of amateur photographers, security cameras and police car dashboards) and then edited it together. It’s not exactly motivated.
But those questions barely bothered me in the moment. The film’s a skillful slide from a genre goof into truly dark territory as Trank’s direction of Landis’s script makes genuine emotional and metaphorical sense out of powers that could otherwise have been glossy B-movie accoutrements. It resists coping out of its genre tweaking by going all the way with suits, superhero names, and catch phrases. It stays likably grounded. Although I had the sense that in the near future, just past the end credits, one of these characters is going to be donning a superheroic persona, it doesn’t feel like just another would-be franchise starter. The actions the young guys take feel convincing and the outcome is always a little in doubt. In the end it’s surprisingly unsurprising, but it’s nicely done in a way that feels new and exciting even when it's not.