Having superpowers these days seems to be no fun at all. Christian Bale is forever haunted by moral conundrums, death, and pain both physical and emotional in Christopher Nolan‘s Batman films. Spider-Man’s enjoyment of his wall-crawling skills are usually tempered by tears and emotions (emphasis on the emo), in Sam Raimi‘s trilogy. Meanwhile, Thor has some kind of Shakesperean level issues going on with this family and Iron Man seems rather blasé about it all. So, when the trio of Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) gain their superpowers by accident in “Chronicle,” they react the way any teenage boys would with the newfound gift of telekinesis — they’re fucking thrilled. And even better, it seems that’s just the start of their abilities.
Penned by Max Landis and directed by Josh Trank, while “reinvention” would be too strong a word, “Chronicle” does a nice job of twisting the standard genre tropes into a pleasantly refreshing, highly entertaining story that features no costumes, no villains, no score, and even at less than 90 minutes, a fair amount of substance. If anything, the tiny-budgeted film (though not that poor considering the filmmakers licensed a David Bowie song) is a sizzle reel for Josh Trank who shows he can do on a fraction of the budget what many directors in Hollywood can’t do with hundreds of millions. That it turns out to be a pretty whipsmart little movie in addition, isn’t too bad at all.
While Matt and Steve are both popular, good-looking high school kids it’s the gaunt loner Andrew who begins to see his new skills as a possible escape. Bullied at school, living in fear of his drunken father’s random outbursts of violence and seeing his sick mother dying before his eyes, it’s Andrew who, more than Matt and Steven, exercises his abilities into a finely honed set of tools. This gift at first tightly unites the trio, who spend every available moment together testing, stretching and having fun with their powers (much to the chagrin of Steve’s girlfriend), in one of the most enjoyable sections of the film. Landis and Trank fully understand the kinds of nonsense teen boys would get into and create some nice little setpieces early on in the film.
But resentment and anger are never too far behind for Andrew, and though he sees his social stock rise with the mild abuse of his powers, the fall is quicker and harsher than he would’ve expected. Weighing on him further are the troubles at home, with his mother crying out in pain, and his no-good father unable to afford the medication to help her. It’s not the powers that are a burden in this film, it’s Andrew’s life itself and that his abilities still can’t lift him out of his personal woes causes a wound to grow and fester within. And without spoiling too much, as we said, there is no “villain” of the movie, but what instead emerges is a nice variation on what is essentially the push and pull found in Magneto and Charles Xavier. While Matt tries to establish a set of rules for the three to follow to ensure primarily that they don’t hurt anyone, Andrew is less convinced, because after all, in his own life in which he has been routinely humiliated and abused, rules have done little to protect him.
One thing Andrew does try is to document the events he faces on a day-to-day basis, which is where the whole found-footage conceit comes into play. But it’s a pretty flimsily explained aesthetic and one that has essentially no bearing on the film, except perhaps on the budget (which may have helped get this made, we’re guessing). The weakness of this approach is stretched to the limit with the introduction of Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), Matt’s love interest who also happens to be — you guessed it — a video blogger of some kind, who of course is always shooting. She serves little function in the movie at all except as a plot device and even her “footage” brings little to bear. This whole found-footage approach seems to have gotten the film greenlit and then been politely stepped around by Trank.
But, it hardly matters. What keeps “Chronicle” compelling is not the quickly wearing novelty of verité-style narrative, but a story in which the stakes aren’t on some far-fetched villain who has a plan to destroy the world, but are based on character-driven issues. It’s not about a hero who is running out of time to save humanity, but a human who is running out of options. And while we’re making it sound deeper than it is (and the movie cheekily tosses around some philosophical mumbo jumbo), it’s just the right amount detail to make these characters worth caring about, and their adventure meaningfully engaging.
Rounded off by a dazzling and pretty uncomprising finale, and helmed with some real verve and energy by Trank, “Chronicle” posits that with great power comes great responsibility. And if you’re a teenager, that message is doubly true. [B]