The “found footage” film trend is one that outstayed it’s welcome two minutes into the end credits of The Blair Witch Project. Too many so-called filmmakers were just slapping amateurish shaky-cam footage on top of mediocre scripts in the hope that it’s “realism” factor would pull in the crowds, while it’s cheap production costs would guarantee them profit.
But a select few managed to truly make effective use of the genre tropes by offering an in-your-face voyeuristic intensity. Films like Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, Rec 1 & 2 and Quarantine.
And now Chronicle firmly takes its place in the upper echelons of that exclusive list.
Chronicle tells the story of Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a troubled loner whose broken semblance of a home life revolves around getting verbally and physically abused by his alcoholic father (Michael Kelly), while helplessly watching his sickly mother wasting away in bed. At high school, he is the stereotypical bullied loser whose only real tether to the outside world is his cousin Matt (Alex Russel). As a form of cathartic diary, Andrew procures an old video camera and decides to document everything that happens in his life. A decision that leads him down an often times funny and charming but inevitably sinister path.
After being dragged to a party by Matt, Andrew is approached by Steve (Michael B. Jordan) – prospective class president and all-around Mr Popular – to help record something that he and Matt had found: a massive hole in the ground containing a mysterious artifact of unknown origins. Andrew reluctantly agrees to go, but the subsequent exposure to the artifact has a strange side-effect though, as the boys start developing marvelous telekinetic powers. The trio slowly become best friends as they spend all their time together experimenting with their abilities. Initially their fledgling powers only allow them to do little things like moving LEGO blocks with much effort, but eventually these abilities grow to fantastic levels. And the boys, just like the Youtube generation that they are, capture it all – from childish pranks and epic fails to awe inspiring and sometimes frightening demonstrations of power.
It’s this first act of the film where first time feature film director Josh Trank, and screenwriter Max Landis (son of famous 80’s director John Landis) truly shine. The film could so easily have devolved into cheesy and slapstick superheroics but this fantastical concept is firmly grounded in reality like no other “super power” film I’ve seen since perhaps Brian De Palma’s Carrie. These are not young superheroes in training, they have no cause to champion – they are simply ordinary teenagers in an extraordinary situation. Even when their activities escalate to the truly extreme, you can’t help but look at these three and go “Yeah, I could totally see my teenage self doing that.”
And I have to admit that it’s Trank’s deft use of the first-person camera, so to speak, that helps to ground this film so convincingly. He even manages to smartly overcome that old found-footage hurdle, shaky cam, by having the characters themselves telepathically move the camera around to get not only much smoother movement, but also angles that would traditionally be unrealistic within this genre.
Another clever approach, is that every shot in this film comes from an on-screen camera. By that I mean that even in those instances where the characters are not holding a camera, the scene is spliced together from various feeds such as police patrol car cameras and security cameras. It’s an insightful and effective method of overcoming the gaping logic pitfall of one of the principal characters always conveniently having a camera pointed at the action.
Also going a long way to lending this fantastical situation some real world heft is the highly convincing performances. All three young lead actors are 100% believable in their roles, but it’s DeHaan that truly shines as Andrew, especially when the film takes a disturbing turn after calamity strikes as a result of their abilities. Whereas Andrew begins as a vulnerable and sympathetic character, he slowly morphs into a figure of darkness and tragedy, due to events unfolding around him. His responsive downward spiral transforms the film from charming teen super powered shenanigans to a Stygian battle of wills. But not once does this change of pace feel forced. It’s an organic metamorphosis, fueled by Andrew’s actions, and culminating in an explosive conclusion that combines equal parts emotion and good ol’ edge of your set action.
When the credits eventually rolled on screen and I looked down at my watch, I was shocked to see how little time had actually passed. The film’s modest 84 minute running time didn’t leave me feeling shortchanged at all, but instead stands as a testament to it’s tight scripting and deft pacing. Landis and Trank had told more story and convincingly developed more character in a fraction of the running time of most big budget blockbusters.
I cannot recommend Chronicle enough, as it shows that the oft considered children’s fare of super powers can be portrayed as realistically as other “mature” genres. It is also one of the most successful examples of the found footage genre, highlighting all of the genre’s strong points while creatively overcoming it’s drawbacks. It’s not a perfect film though. There are a few CGI missteps, Andrew’s sudden increase in popularity in one scene is a bit hamfisted and one supporting character is clearly there just so that her camera can be conveniently available to pick up the action. But these few faults still cannot do enough to significantly detract from an amazing debut film. I simply cannot wait to see what these young filmmakers do next.
Last Updated: February 10, 2012