Was it Superman’s, Spider-Man’s or Socrates’ uncle who said, “With great power comes great responsibility?” Regardless, it would have proved sound advice for the suddenly telekinetic teens at the center of the raw, electrical charge of “Chronicle.”
Thankfully, it’s wisdom the filmmakers took to heart. This mind-and-fork-bending sci-fi saga comes from the freaky imaginations of director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis, who’ve packed their feature debut with smartness. Don’t let its DIY sensibility fool you: “Chronicle” is ultimately telling a meta-story, built around the age-old conundrum — if you had superpowers that would let you do just about anything, would you do good or evil?
As the film opens, Andrew (Dane DeHaan) has no idea that he’ll ever have to answer such a lofty question. He’s just trying to survive high school as one of the bullied nerds. His general state of oppression starts at home with his dad (Michael Kelly), an ex-firefighter living on disability and brutally taking out his frustration on his son.
Andrew’s cousin Matt (Alex Russell), one of the high school cool dudes, is the closest thing he has to a silver lining. There’s a party in the offing that Matt is convinced could be life-changing for his cousin. Little does he know. All of this info we get from the video diary Andrew is now keeping. In recording everything — from brushing teeth to the bullies in his life — the rock and roll of teen emotions is reflected.
One of the cleverest conceits is the way in which shots are framed so that it really does seem as if we’re seeing everything through Andrew’s lens. Helped by the keen eye of cinematographer Matthew Jensen, mirrors — really, any shiny surface — help fill in the settings.
At some point during that fateful party, another popular senior, Steve (Michael B. Jordan) grabs Andrew to shoot something he and Matt have found. It’s a hole in the ground, which of course beckons. Things happen down there, and when the three teenagers surface they have unexpected powers. At first they experiment with silly stuff — levitating Legos. Next it’s levitating themselves, with some bizarrely believable (almost) aerial effects. As their superpowers grow, so do the tests of their moral centers, with the push-and-pull of those conflicts driving the narrative to lethal extremes.
While that might sound like just a YouTube/Facebook variation on the old coming of age story, it plays far fresher than that with filmmakers proving innovative in using the found-footage idea that made “The Blair Witch Project” such a sensation. Meanwhile the three teens are a well blended crew, anchored by DeHaan, who strip mines the trajectory of teen repression, resentment and rage with a frenetic energy.
For all the promise to be found within “Chronicle,” it is still rough around the edges and a little off the rails by the end. There are times when the filmmakers seem to have written themselves into a corner. Whether by design or not, the way they deal with it is by relying on “technical issues” with Andrew’s camera — just letting the screen go dark. Sometimes those moments come with a snippet of dialogue. More often, there is nothing but the sound of silence. Frankly, that’s a technique we should hope catches on; it would have vastly improved any number of recent films.