In recent years, I have become jaded about superhero movies, a genre I once enjoyed. A sameness and lack of energy permeates them, especially the origin stories. There’s something perfunctory and unsatisfying about many of the big titles, leaving it to smaller, less ambitious features to fill the breach. Chronicle is relatively unheralded, but it arrives at a time when this breed of movie needs an injection of originality. Like 2010’s Kick-Ass, it exists beneath the superhero umbrella but seems nothing like a Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, or X-Men.
The three protagonists in Chronicle are following their own paths through their senior year in high school until they discover an alien (?) artifact in an underground cavern. Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is a shy, socially inept video geek who prefers viewing life through the distance afforded by a viewfinder. He is bullied at school and at home, where his mother (Bo Petersen) is wasting away on her deathbed and his abusive father (Michael Kelly) is never far from a bottle. Andrew’s only friend is his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), but there’s a distance between them. Matt is a member of the popular crowd and he finds Andrew to be hostile and unpredictable. Then there’s Matt’s friend, Steve (Michael B. Jordan), who is the school’s Golden Boy – accomplished both in and out of the classroom, liked by all, and seemingly destined for greatness.
The underground encounter imbues Andrew, Matt, and Steve with telekinetic powers. Andrew’s seem to be the strongest, but that may be because he focuses the hardest. Initially useful minor gags and tricks, their abilities grow stronger with use. Soon, they can levitate themselves and soar into the sky. And they can hurt others. They draft a set of three rules intended to keep them from harming people, but Andrew begins to think of things in evolutionary terms. Survival of the fittest. After all, do people feel remorse when they kill a bug?
Chronicle is unusual, and perhaps unique, in the way it treats the so-called origin story. These are regular kids with regular problems in a regular school. There is no Uncle Ben. No Alfred. No Professor X. Their challenge is not to grow into their powers fast enough to be able to fend off a challenge to the world. Instead, it’s to find a way to cope with the ways in which they are different from their friends and schoolmates and to recognize that these powers cannot change their fundamental identities. There are slippery slopes to be navigated. Can reason and restraint rule the day, or is the maxim “power corrupts” inviolate?
First time director Josh Trank’s best asset is also his greatest challenge: the first-person narrative style. What was at one time viewed as a gimmicky variant for low-budget productions – telling the entire story through “found footage” filmed by someone involved in the proceedings – has become an increasingly popular conceit. Most movies of this sort fall into the horror genre, so Chronicle is something of an outlier. It wrestles mightily with the logic of having characters constantly filming things and never quite gets us on board with the explanation, which seems awkward and artificial. Yet in its own way, it works. It gets us into the action. It invests us in the characters with a surprising economy of screen time. It gives Chronicle an immediacy and intimacy that no previous superhero movie has achieved even if, to the very end, we’re irked by the limitations the first-person footage places on shot selection. (To his credit, Trank finds a way to mix things up during the climax without unduly compromising his approach.)
The cast is comprised of unfamiliar faces, which enhances the pseudo-reality of the milieu. The principals – Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan – are professional actors with credits (many on television) to their names. But they are not “known” stars and that allows them to be accepted with ease into these roles. First-person movies rely on shattering barriers between the characters and the audience and there is no bigger roadblock to that than hiring a recognizable actor.
Another nice thing about Chronicle is that it tells the whole story. There’s nothing about the ending that would preclude a sequel but there’s nothing that requires one, either. The tale has been told. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. There’s comedy and tragedy, levity and sadness. In fact, this is in many ways less a superhero movie than it is a coming-of-age story. Except in this case, these characters have to cope with more than hormones and peer pressure.
Chronicle is the kind of movie that makes one excited about the future prospects of the man at the helm. The flaws are more easily forgiven considering the risks taken, many of which pay off. It will be interesting to see whether Trank uses whatever clout he acquires from Chronicle to continue to assemble an interesting resume, or whether he takes the first Hollywood offer than lands in his lap. Regardless of where his future lies, however, this young filmmaker has provided us with a sharp, fresh calling card that reminds us that not all superhero stories have to be stodgy, overbudgeted, and underwritten.