REVIEW: Found-Footage Sci-Fi Tale Chronicle Is Uneven But Earnest, and Often Exhilarating
The allegory-rich Chronicle opens with a kind of generational statement: “I bought a camera,” senior class punching bag Andrew (Dane DeHaan) says, “and I’m filming everything from here on out.” Andrew is talking to his father (Michael Kelly), a drunkard ex-fireman who punishes his son for the stress of caring for his dying wife, though the announcement is meant for us as well. Chronicle fits into the growing genre of “found footage” films, though that becomes just one formal element of many director Josh Trank meshes together to put a new spin on the subject of teenage alienation and its more extreme social side effects.
People don’t respond well to Andrew’s decision to begin filming everything he does, though that may be because nobody responds well to anything Andrew does. Throughout the first part of Chronicle everyone he meets wants to know why he’s filming or tells him to stop; his popular, aspiring intellectual cousin Matt (Alex Russell) is particularly camera shy. In a gesture of great social generosity, Matt brings Andrew and his massive camcorder to a barn party for some fun one Friday night. Together with the ridiculously congenial class president hopeful Steve (Michael B. Jordan), Andrew and Matt explore what appears to be a sinkhole in a ravine outside the barn. What they find inside is a glowing chamber of vascular crystals. They emerge with spontaneously bloodied noses and telekinetic powers.
So, you know, another Friday night in Seattle. The trio take the event more or less in stride, so that what ensues is basically a montage of their various attempts to create the best YouTube video ever. The boys treat their superpowers like one more of puberty’s bodily twists, and trade tips on how to manage it. They begin by moving other objects around and creating force fields to shield their bodies from pain. The more they develop the power, like a muscle, the stronger it becomes. Soon they begin moving themselves around, and then up into the sky. What could go wrong?
Trank keeps the fraternal tone so light it’s sometimes just shy of forced -- the script, by Max Landis (the son of John Landis), is a little heavy on the “Dude, no way!” dialogue. But the first half of Chronicle establishes an affable and believable bond between the three characters -- something one of them badly needs. They talk about girls and plan to see the world -- Andrew wants to make a spiritual mission to Tibet. And yet it’s Andrew who begins pulling away from the pack. The kid’s got a lot of unfocused rage, and it starts slipping out in small acts of aggression. The group’s golden rule -- basically don’t hurt anybody -- doesn’t preclude letting Andrew earn a little social cred at the school talent show, so he puts on a “magic” act that makes him an instant hero. But a sexual humiliation soon follows, and it proves to be a point of no return. Only his friends are powerful enough to stop him, which means they quickly become his enemies.
Andrew starts out with the desire to create a true record of the abuse he is suffering, presumably one that will be witnessed. And yet the fact that Andrew’s persecutors are presented from his vantage, literally and otherwise, reinforces the sense that if the camera doesn’t lie, perspective still tends to exaggerate. This uneven but earnest, often exhilarating film derives its greatest interest from the way it turns the found-footage format inside out: At some point Andrew learns to control the camera’s movement with his mind, so instead of seeing what he sees, we're watching a self-directed version of his life. When that movie becomes a kind of disaster pic it would seem that the further we move from Andrew’s literal perspective, the deeper we get into his psyche and the hellmouth of teenage rage. By the time he’s putting the entire metro area on notice -- having thrashed his father and all the local bullies -- Andrew has no camera and the metaphor has run away with the story entirely. The crazy thing is it almost works.
The finale, which goes off like an unmanned fire hose, rests on the assumption that everything is in fact being filmed from here on out -- a subtext of the found-footage conceit. The question of who has found and edited this thing together is treated as understood, an apt reflection of the genre’s popularity. Doesn’t some part of every self-documenter assume a future curator will rescue him from oblivion? That someday his story will be told? The coda suggests the evidence will exonerate Tibet-loving Andrew for that time he had his revenge on Seattle; the truth is he was just misunderstood.