A slick, modestly scaled science-fiction fairy tale with major box-office aspirations, Chronicle is the latest big-studio release in indie-sheeps clothing. Its a classic pop creation in that its hook — three teenage boys mysteriously acquire fantastic powers — seems fresh even if the whole thing feels inspired by someones Netflix queue: a revenge-of-the-outsider tale like Brian De Palmas Carrie; the first-person perspective of The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield; and average Joes turned super-Joes as in the television shows Heroes and No Ordinary Family.
Chronicle, written by Max Landis and directed by Josh Trank, who together came up with the story, warms up slowly. (Landis, 26, is the son of the director John Landis, best known for horror films like An American Werewolf in London; Trank, also 26, has worked as a film editor, including on Big Fan.) It opens with Andrew (a very good Dane DeHaan), the only child of a raging alcoholic father (Michael Kelly) and a mother whos dying at home (Bo Petersen), recording himself in his bedroom mirror with a digital camera. The mirror hangs on a door thats shaking because dear old drunk dad likes to play the Big Bad Wolf.
For reasons that are never satisfactorily articulated, Andrew has decided to record everything in his life, or at least the highlights. Banalities like bathroom visits and classroom lessons dont make the final cut, but a party that his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) coaxes him into attending does. After the usual cacophony of beats and revelry, and the introduction of an obligatory female lust object, Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), the movie gets down to business. Along with a popular student, Steve (Michael B Jordan), Max takes Andrew over to a large hole in the ground. My, what a big mouth it has. Laughing, dizzy from booze and high on youth, the boys enter the void, dropping down, down into the black.
For a while the mysterious hole and its cave hold out the promise that Chronicle will be as creepy-freaky as Carrie, and that the filmmakers will mine the cavitys depths for all its psycho-sexual terror instead of settling for a boys super-neato adventure. No such luck. Landis certainly is clever — the garrulous Matt, who looks and sounds as if hes in college, name drops Schopenhauer, Jung and Plato — but these citations are largely self-aware icing on a genre cake. Early on Matt explains to Andrew, CliffsNotes style, Schopenhauers concept of will, vaguely paving the way for the actions and themes to come. The hole, the boys soon discover, has left them with extraordinary powers, including telekinesis, gifts that eventually lead to a battle between untamed will and choice.
Matt and Steve embrace their new powers with giddy enthusiasm and while Andrew initially seems just as blissed out, he soon goes dark and then darker. From the start theres an undertow of cruelty to the teenagers high jinks as they learn what they can do, as when they levitate a stuffed animal to frighten a child. Trank brings a light touch to these self-discovery scenes — the three are flexing fast-evolving muscles — as well as a creeping sense of menace.
In this respect, DeHaan, whose vulnerability and physical awkwardness here can evoke the young Leonardo DiCaprio in Whats Eating Gilbert Grape, is invaluable. Russell and Jordan are as likeable as their characters, but its DeHaan who pulls you uneasily in.
Tranks shrewdest move is to give Chronicle visual polish. (That and the neat trick of making South Africa pass for Seattle.) The movie is primarily seen through Andrews eyes, or rather his cameras, which gives the opening section a grubby, smeary, consumer-level digital video look. After he loses his original camera, though, and somehow obtains a better one, improving the image quality (and how! the movie was shot with an Alexa, which can start at $60,000), he increasingly uses his telekinetic powers to operate his new toy. The superhero stuff is all fine and good enough, but its this vision of a lonely boy with his swooping, dipping, flying Tinker Bell of a camera that truly lifts the movie.
(New York Times News Service)
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