The found footage genre has become stale. Not only is the market saturated with these frenetic gimmicks, but it proposes a narrative roadblock. The roadblock being a limitation on the emotional reaction we can achieve from our protagonist. Yet, in the case of Chronicle, it cleverly circumvents the issue through the will and power of our quasi-protagonist, Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan). Andrew, a shy, reclusive teenager, is on the social outskirts looking in. He’s not popular or really memorable. Weird is the likely adjective associated with his name in the halls of his school. Adding unnecessary weight to Andrew’s social exclusion is an abusive father and a mother losing a battle with cancer. Outside of his handsome cousin Matt (Alex Russell), Andrew swims in a sea of despair, alone and waiting for the tide to consume him.
Making Andrew’s divisive attitude more alienating is his newfound use of a camcorder. The camcorder becomes an extension of his body; it goes everywhere he goes. In a way it’s similar to a character found in American Beauty. Where the character in American Beauty focused on capturing the grace of the world, Andrew utilizes his camera as a deterrent for his physical father and to examine the world that shuns him. Despite the camera having an even more negative effect on Andrew’s image, it comes in handy one night when Matt convinces him to go to a barn party. At the party Matt and Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), the school’s popular jock, find a cavern that demands attention. With Andrew and his camera in tow, Matt and Steve spelunk into the mysterious dwelling only to find a glowing orb that mutates the trio in a way that typically bears comic book heroes.
Instead of developing super strength or unsightly muscles, the boys gain the power of telekinesis. Sounds lame on paper, but through their pranks and childlike enthusiasm, the boys develop their ability into an elastic muscle that grows stronger and stronger the more they use it. Finally, after much “growth”, the boys cleverly parlay their lifting ability into the act of flying. After all, the boys can lift objects, thus logic would suggest they could lift themselves. Eureka! Much of the boys’ discovery of their newfound power is undeniably funny and cool. Kudos goes to screenwriter Max Landis for concocting playful moments that highlight the adventurous nature of teenage boys. But that is only the first half of the film. Landis also delivers a daring third act that is beyond sinister and is present from the first frame. Much of the twisted turns rely on us believing Andrew’s struggle with the people around him. Landis’ characterization of Andrew, a kid who can’t keep his anger and powers separated, makes the film’s stunning turn easy to swallow.
Bringing Landis’ smart work to life is director Josh Trank. Trank expertly blends small character moments and special effects into flights of wonder. Mind you, the film gets away from Trank’s handle in the waning moments, but it constantly attempts to redefine the tropes of comic book “heroes” and the found footage genre. One example of trying to reinvent the wheel would be Trank’s insistence on letting us see Andrew without the camera masking his face. Trank achieves this transparency by using the telekinesis ability as a tool to push the camera around our characters. It hauntingly floats around, allowing us to witness the unthinkable and its profound effect on each character, especially Andrew’s demonstrative transformation. By Trank’s use of the camera and Landis’ smart screenplay, Chronicle is an active piece of filmmaking that documents the liberating freedoms of inhuman powers and the burden they can have when mixed with emotions.