Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
While it may seem like an unlikely candidate for 2012’s first good movie. Chronicle (Josh Trank, 2012) is a sci-fi drama that thrives on the specific combination of two sub-genre conventions: “found-footage” and real people gaining superhuman powers. By themselves, these conventions are growing a bit stale, but together in Trank’s movie they infuse one another with some entertaining, creative tension.
Chronicle is a teenage drama centering on Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), an outcast at high school who only seems to enhance his odd persona by always walking around with a video camera. What Andrew sees — what Andrew’s story is — becomes an invitation for our viewing. At high school, we catch glimpses of physical and verbal bullying. Due to Andrew’s perennial awkwardness and insistence on keeping to himself, he is a prime target for high school’s torture chamber of unpopularity. However, at home, we quickly see why Andrew is so withdrawn — his father is a drunken mess who abuses him regularly, and his mother is effectively on her death bed with illness.
Under these circumstances, the found-footage approach effectively adds empathy to the situation, because we are not just seeing why Andrew is the way he is, but we’re also seeing how Andrew’s fractured identity is constructed by his specific perspective. We see what he sees and this sharpens our imaginative recognition of his downward plight.
One night, however, Andrew’s unfortunate circumstances take a decided turn when he, his more-popular cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and flamboyant star quarterback Steve (Michael B. Jordan) happen upon a mysterious hole in the ground in the woods. Inside, they discover a glowing, blue crystallized object that suddenly inflicts nosebleeds and pain on the boys as the camera cuts out. The next footage we see is of the boys recording their newfound telekinetic abilities. I was pleasantly surprised that the footage of the boys causing stuffed bears to float in toy stores and playing catch among the airplanes looks relatively plausible, enough that some of the images take your breath away, if only for a moment.
In addition to enjoying newfound camaraderie with Matt and Steve, Andrew’s standing at high school also takes a turn toward popularity due to an unforgettable talent show performance. But while Andrew may have new friends and new abilities, he still has difficult wounds to deal with. It’s a credit to Trank that Andrew’s turn to the dark side happens during what is viewed by many teenagers as the height of high school respectability: he’s humiliated at a party when he vomits on a girl just as they are on the verge of having sex.
Fed up with feeling small and embarrassed, Andrew becomes increasingly antagonistic and secluded. From this point on, Chronicle is a battle between Andrew’s devastating anger as an “apex predator” (“survival of the fittest” becomes attractive to him) and Matt’s desperate attempt to persuade him toward calm and a restored moral sense with people’s lives at stake. Some of the film’s third act loses steam when it devolves into moments of parody (Matt screaming “Annnddreeewwww” repeatedly while his cousin rages will probably be Youtube fodder sooner or later). But for most of the film, the recipe works.
Taken for what it is, Chronicle is enjoyable entertainment that features a few moments of genuine narrative surprise, and two interesting, connected themes to ponder. Andrew’s decision to record his life is a means for him to place a “barrier” between himself and the cruel “otherness” of the world. Yet, it’s this sense of barrier that also prevents him from being transparent enough to feel embarrassed around newfound friends and trust that they will still love him. Thus, the barrier — the video camera — becomes a tool not simply for chronicling three boys’ discovery of telekinetic powers, but, more importantly, for capturing a visual record of Andrew’s sad descent into classic villainy.