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Chronicle is the best coming-of-age found-footage superhero origin story you’ve never heard of. And, for the most part, that’s an endorsement.
Essentially, director Josh Trank’s film showcases the rise of unlikely heroes and villains — that is, the transformation from effed-up mere mortals to effed-up demigods — that you’d see in a comic book, without the trappings of having been adapted from, or adhering to, one. This isn’t a movie in which the big reveal involves our protagonists donning Spandex suits to complement their newly discovered powers; these kids roll straight Peter Parker.
It’s actually pretty authentic stuff, speaking from the mortal side of things, at least, as we’re entrenched in the lives of three utterly opposite high school seniors: shy, withdrawn Andrew (Dane DeHaan); his bookish, haughty cousin Matt (Alex Russell); and popular, outgoing Steve (Michael B. Jordan). The film’s found-footage shooting style is care of Andrew, who first begins recording his abusive, alcoholic father (presumably to use as evidence), but finds himself unable to shed the camera as he begins to use it as a barrier between himself and the rest of the world. The only person he seems to let in, by way of handing over his precious recording device, is his bedridden mother, whose ailment is bankrupting Andrew’s father.
After Matt convinces Andrew to attend a party, the three boys wander off to the woods, discover a seemingly bottomless hole and do what any 17-year-old with a Coors Light buzz would do: They jump into it. What they discover deep within bestows them with varying degrees of superhuman powers, which they promptly test — as only adolescent boys could. They peg each other with baseballs (Andrew is the only one who can stop it mid-air before it strikes), move a BMW from one spot to another in a parking lot, switch on a leaf blower to upturn a girl’s skirt and, eventually, exercise and fine-tune their abilities enough to fly (a power used for the benefit of weightless touch football, naturally).
The three obviously find themselves alienated by their gifts, allowing plenty of time for the typical heart-to-hearts you normally see on a basketball court or in the smoker’s section of the woods behind the high school. Only for Steve, Matt and Andrew, those moments take place while they’re perched on skyscraper ledges, or dodging lightning thousands of feet in the air.
What’s so endearing about screenwriter Max Landis’ take on the coming-of-age story is the chemistry between DeHaan, Russell and Jordan, and the authenticity of their shared moments. Andrew expertly crafts a model of the Seattle Space Needle out of LEGOs using telekinesis; Matt watches, mesmerized, but Steve is too busy texting his girlfriend to notice. Andrew achieves a measure of popularity after exhibiting his skills in a talent show, but succumbs to a mortal failing while attempting to drunkenly score with a girl at an after-party.
Their newfound powers meld with their personalities to transform them accordingly. You can see the gritty inner workings of who these guys could eventually be — the fresh generation of Jokers or Batmen — but the movie sticks to its Stand By Me-style roots. The CGI is surprisingly seamless considering the film’s low budget, with objects and people shooting through the air to fairly convincing effect, and the inventive cinematography plays a huge part in that. Not only are we given perspectives via Andrew’s camera, but also that of Matt’s ex-flame Casey, as well as various security cameras. Once Andrew’s skills strengthen, he’s able to float the camera over and in front of him and others, allowing for some interesting vantage points and smoother shots mixed in with the other shaky-cam footage.
The film isn’t without its overindulgent scenes, though; it feels long, despite its fairly tight 83-minute running time. The inevitable climax, a cacophony of CGI-peppered action sequences, could’ve been cut in half, to greater effect. And the inner workings of Andrew’s family crisis — almost exclusively featured as ambient noise during his bedroom videotaping sessions — become overkill once his psychological evolution is well on its way. Not to mention that some of Andrew’s later decisions seem counterintuitive to plain ol’ common sense. And of course there’s the ever-burning question: Who the heck strung all of this footage together, anyway?
Nitpicks aside, Chronicle is a fresh little surprise of a movie, an invigorating take on the found-footage craze, with convincing performances and fun action to guide you through. With a veritable buffet of sequels and prequels and tie-ins at your grasp, it’s nice to be presented with a movie that boasts no loyalties or specific genres. If nothing else, Chronicle is an entertaining and unique palate cleanser.
Chronicle opens today nationwide.