Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, Alex Russell, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw, Anna Wood, Bo Peterson
Running Time: 83 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Coming out of nowhere, Chronicle uses its high-concept premise as a playground to push past its genre boundaries to become something entirely original and exciting. It's such a surprise and so cleverly conceived that it's perplexing audiences didn't come out to see it in droves, despite it doing fairly well at the box office. Why they didn't probably has something to do with its lack of marketing and the fact it combines two heavily played out genres: superhero and found footage films. I hesitate even mentioning that because it feels more like a John Hughes movie in how it crafts an intelligent, mature story about teenagers that can be appreciated by all ages. A title card reading "Presented By Steven Spielberg" wouldn't look out of place if this were the 80's. After watching is it plainly clear what "bigger" movies like Super 8 and Hancock were trying to do, but couldn't fully accomplish. Here, the camera really is a character and through it we're taken on a wild ride that would be tough to replicate using just any other technique. And in doing so, first-time director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis should be congratulated for submitting one of the top films of the half-year and perfectly weaving all its elements with an emotional, Columbine-style allegory. It dares to ask what a modern day Holden Caufield would be like if he suddenly possessed superpowers. As you might have guessed, the answer isn't pretty.
Seattle high school senior Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) has a mother (Bo Petersen) dying of cancer and a drunk father (Michael Kelly) who's verbally and physically abusive. A social outcast at school who's constantly bullied by his peers and somewhat ignored by his own cousin Matt (Alex Russell), Andrew's only friend seems to be a handheld camcorder, which he starts carrying around to chronicle his life. When Matt drags him to a rave in hopes of helping him meet people they encounter popular student Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) who persuades them to record a strange occurrence in the woods. They enter a giant, mysterious hole in the ground emitting a loud noise and containing a giant, glowing crystalline object. Fast forward a couple of weeks later and they possess a wide array of telekinetic powers that begin to escalate, becoming more refined as they experiment in their backyards and beyond. Pretty soon they're using the powers in public for practical jokes and seemingly harmless mayhem, but with no established rules for its use, Andrew's darker side comes out, threatening their friendship and everyone's lives.
The scenes where they first discover their powers are about as entertaining and funny as could be hoped for in a superhero movie, if only this were just any superhero movie. Testing out their telekinesis on unsuspecting customers in a supermarket is hilarious not only because of their actions, but because the sequences perfectly capture the kind of joy and excitement you'd expect high seniors to have if they possessed such abilities. Not often is the word "realism" thrown around when discussing movies in this genre, but it's applicable here because Landis' screenplay is so dedicated to playing by the rules of the situation it creates and letting us care about them. We've seen plenty of found footage films through the years with many recently using the camera as a distracting gimmick, but here's an instance where its presence seems to serve a narrative function. That's especially evident when the three friends discover their ability to fly, resulting in a scene that's breathtaking in scope. It feels like we're up there with them, sharing in the revelation. As the film wears on and the action picks up, Trank's direction is so clever in how he still manages to incorporate the single camera perspective, whether he's switching out the characters who appear to be doing the filming, shifting to a security camera or, in many cases, having them appear to record the action from their state of levitation. In a good move, it seems like this was shot at like a higher quality than we're used to getting with these types of movies, with camera work that's sharper and not as nauseatingly shaky as you'd expect.
With these thrilling elements taking hold, it was only matter of time before things start to go dark, with the angry, tormented Andrew suddenly gaining popularity he can't seem to process and doubting the loyalty of the his only two friends. Only then, does it come into full view what this is really about, and how it used a superhero origin story as vehicle to get there. It's impossible to consider it all working as well without the three leads, who share a chemistry together onscreen so authentic that when their friendship begins to dissolve it really does seem tragic. Much of that is due to Dane DeHaan's frightening, but sympathetic portrayal, which is sure to be looked back on in a few years as marking the arrival of a major talent.
Resembling a younger, geekier looking Leonardo DiCaprio, DeHaan captures the burden of every outcast adolescent who thought they'd never survive high school. When Andrew snaps, his eyes go dead and it's impossible no to think of stories and descriptions of loner teens we hear about on the news. As Sam, former Fright Night Lights' star Michael B. Jordan brings intelligence and dimension to Steve, making him more than just your stereotypical popular jock and demonstrating all of the charisma he displayed on TV has been translated full force to the big screen. The final piece of the equation is Alex Russell, whose performance is Matt is interesting in how he suggests the possibility of a whole backstory to the character we don't get to see, as he struggles to come to grips with where he fits in. It's most obvious in his relationship with would-be girlfriend Casey (a delightful Ashley Hinshaw), who's video blog provides the film an opportunity to add yet another camera to the mix. As far as romantic sub-plots go, this couldn't have been handled any better or with more subtlety.
Working on a relatively meager sized budget, Trank crafts a jaw-dropping final finale in downtown Seattle that looks and feels positively epic in scope, putting most big budget action blockbusters to shame. It also helps that we actually care about those involved in it and the result. Less a movie watching experience than an amusement park ride, the handheld camera replicates how insane it would be to see something like this happening on the streets. I've gone back and forth on how the movie likely would have played without this found footage technique, or whether it was completely necessary to tell the story, but the bottom line is it works and that's all that counts. It also trusts the intelligence of its audience to figure things out and fill in the blanks on details, since at just under an hour and a half, not a minute of screen time is squandered. Supposedly there's talk of a sequel, but that seems pointless, especially given how concrete an ending this has. The closing scene is especially perfect. Chronicle does a better job capturing high school than most dramas and documentaries do, and more traditional superhero movies released this year could have a tough time following it.