Blending the found-footage fad with a chilling commentary on the effects of bullying, Josh Trank’s “Chronicle” presents as plausible a portrait of the way three teens might react to gaining psychic powers as one could hope from a film in which every detail has been fudged. Unlike other mock docs, which unconvincingly pass themselves off as real, “Chronicle” cleverly embraces the format as shorthand for a new kind of naturalism, inviting auds to suspend disbelief and join in the fantasy of being able to do anything with their minds. Assuming it catches on, Fox should have a cost-effective new franchise.
Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) has every reason to resent the world. At home, the awkward teen’s mother (Bo Petersen) is dying. Between his abusive father and the bullies at school, Andrew feels beaten down from every side. The closest thing he has to a friend is his cousin Matt (Australian charmer Alex Russell), an amateur philosopher who does his best to coax Andrew out of his shell by driving him to school and inviting him to parties.
At first, Andrew’s only recourse is to document the injustices he suffers on a daily basis. But the addition of a camera seems only to amplify his outsider status, which “Chronicle” conveys in the way Andrew’s peers react to being recorded without their permission. Teary-eyed but undeterred, Andrew keeps filming. Had his frustration continued to develop in this direction, one can imagine things eventually veering into school-shooting territory.
Instead, some sort of cosmic power intervenes. Andrew is sulking outside an after-school rave when Matt and cool kid Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) drag him along to check out a mysterious hole in the nearby forest floor. Any sane person would go the other way, but these three show scant awareness of their own mortality — a theme that recurs after they emerge with newfound telekinetic powers. As they soon find out, being able to levitate Legos with your mind doesn’t necessarily mean you can survive being struck by lightning.
The mock-doc format lends itself especially well to the film’s second act, in which the trio flex their new mental muscles, documenting the process the way real kids make skateboard videos. While not entirely convincing, the visual effects are good enough to suggest plausible ways teenagers might manipulate the world around them, as when Andrew remote-controls a leaf blower to embarrass a group of skirt-wearing female classmates. Before long, they’re playing football at 30,000 feet and trying to steal the school talent show with impossible magic tricks. Practicing on his own, Andrew develops some fancy new camera moves, with the immediate benefit of keeping handheld shaking to a minimum.
The film commits to the idea that every shot must be sourced by a diegetic camera, one that can be explained within the world of the film, whether it belongs to Andrew, pretty video blogger Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) or, when things start to get really crazy, surveillance cameras from the surrounding area. But unlike found-footage features like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Rec,” which have primarily used the technique as a tease while withholding any evidence of the supernatural, “Chronicle” makes no attempt to maintain the credibility of its format, using frequent jump cuts to skip over inconvenient stretches of story.
As a new storytelling tool, this approach serves as the cinematic equivalent of an epistolary novel in which the story unfolds through diary entries, newspaper clippings and other “real-world” documents, as opposed to being told through the less reliable voice of an omniscient narrator. As a tale of powerful yet uncontrollable transformation, the film provides a modern update on the monster-movie formula seen in the tales of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man and so many others. After testing the limits of his power, Andrew is gradually corrupted by them, more than slightly resembling a petulant Anakin Skywalker being drawn to the Dark Side.
Rather than using their powers for good, the way a long tradition of Marvel and DC superheroes before them have, the three leads instead find themselves turning on one another as Andrew’s inferiority complex pushes him to exact “Carrie”-style revenge on the bullies who made his life miserable in the past. Within the internal logic of Max Landis’ keen script (conceived in partnership with director Trank), Andrew’s arc makes sense, but limits the scope of the story and comes at the expense of the other characters. As Steve, aspiring class president and future politician, Jordan is especially magnetic, and a totally different movie might have explored how these powers play out in the hands of an Obama-to-be.
Clearly inspired by “District 9,” Trank shot in South Africa as a stand-in for Seattle, working closely with vfx supervisor Simon Hansen (a colleague of Neill Blomkamp’s) to simulate the Pacific Northwest, culminating in a spectacular scene outside the Space Needle. Overall, Trank’s approach shows considerable ingenuity on a tight budget, sure to inspire imitators before the already overused mock-doc format runs its course.