Peter Parker’s uncle Ben once famously said (just before he got blown away by some scumbag with a gun, natch), “With great power, comes great responsibility”. Peter Parker certainly learned that lesson, and has used it as the basis for his crimefighting career as Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. The three high school seniors at the center of director Josh Trank and co-writer Max Landis’ new film “Chronicle”, on the other hand? Not so much. Mixing the found footage genre (which I hate with a passion, by the way) and the very familiar (and by now very well-tread) superhero Origins Story, Trank and Landis give us “Chronicle”, a shockingly good coming of age tale wrapped around the conventions of a superhero movie. If, you know, your coming of age involved weird glowing rocks in mysterious underground caves, telekinesis, and a superpowered battle in the middle of Downtown.
The chronicler of “Chronicle” is one Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a put-upon lad with no real friends, and whose home life really, really sucks. His mother’s sick and his dad’s a violent drunk. Beat that! “My Super Sweet 16”, this is not. But he does have a cousin name Matt (Alex Russell), who takes pity on the kid and drags him to a local rave, along with Matt’s buddy, Mr. Popular Steve (Michael B. Jordan). But it’s not the rave that forever alters the lives of our trio of budding BFFs. Nope. It’s the hole in the ground nearby, which leads to a subterranean cave and, inside, outerworldly objects that grant the boys telekinetic powers. (For the non-geek among you, that means they can move stuff with their minds.) How do they develop powers exactly? Don’t worry about it. That’s not the point. (Plus, potential sequels, baby!) Fast-forward to many weeks later, and the boys, now close friends, are discovering what it means to be “superheroes”. Okay, not really.
Giddy at the idea of having secret superpowers (who wouldn’t be?), the boys act their age: freak out kids in stores, orchestrate a glimpse at the cute girl’s panties, and turn a talent show on its head. But it’s not all mischief; the boys also learn to fly in a sequence that feels entirely real. Yes, you’ll think to yourself, finding out you can fly should look and feel just like that. But those innocuous moments soon lose their luster for Andrew, who suddenly realizes that he doesn’t have to take the crap he’s been taking when he can easily fight back — and win. Will he suddenly go all Magneto on us and try to conquer the world? Not exactly. At its core, “Chronicle” is going for gritty realism (high school teenagers with superpowers notwithstanding), so Andrew doesn’t so much as attempt to subjugate the world like a one-man Brotherhood of Evil Mutants as he exacts some petty revenge and pulls strong-arm robberies for the one thing all teens need, cold hard cash. And thanks to his powers, Andrew no longer has to hold his camera to record his every actions. Telekinesis, as it turns out, is even better than a professional steadicam operator.
As I’ve said, I’m not the biggest fan of the found footage genre, but I found myself not minding it at all here. For the most part, Trank manages to justify a lot of the film’s shot-from-a-camera perspective, and the beginnings of “Chronicle”, in particular, work very well. Eventually, though, Trank has to cheat a little, but unless you’re a stickler for absolute realism, these moments can be excused, and frankly, they benefit the film more than they distract. This gimmick truly earns its keep during the film’s climactic battle, with the film’s perspective suddenly switching between multiple sources. This is the YouTube generation, after all, where just about everyone has a cellphone and the will to pull them out at a moment’s notice, yours and my privacy be damn. It’s not too hard to believe that a superpowered battle in Downtown Seattle would capture lots of attention from witnesses, along with CCTV cameras and circling news helicopters. As it turns out, seeing this kind of comic book battle from this angle was surprisingly exhilarating.
So what’s with the glowing stuff in the hole? Who cares. That’s not even remotely the point of what first-time feature film director Trank is going for. (Although this is his debut on the big screen, Trank has previously directed episodes of the mini-series “The Kill Point”.) Clocking in at a lean and mean 80-ish minutes, “Chronicle’s” superhero, “X-Men”-style finale works because you care about the characters, because Trank and Landis have invested the time necessarily to make you understand, even if you don’t necessarily agree with Andrew, Matt, and Steve. Dane DeHaan turns in a star-making performance as Andrew, an average teenager in every way, and one that is very vulnerable to the idea of never again succumbing to the will of others. That’s not to say the other lads do bad work. Alex Russell is good, but he doesn’t have nearly the meaty role that DeHaan has; plus, his subplot with with a girlfriend is mostly pointless. Jordan, the most experienced actor of the trio, actually has the least to do, which is ironic.
Despite its found footage foundation, “Chronicle” had an estimated $12 million production budget, which is of course how it affords its many special effects. These moments are not seamless by any means, but they nevertheless work pretty well in the confines of the film’s faux documentary style. It will be intriguing to see if bigger budgeted superhero fare like “The Avengers”, “The Dark Knight Rises”, and “The Amazing Spider-Man” can match what Trank and company have achieved with, by comparison, a miniscule budget. Marc Webb’s “Spider-Man”, in particular, will be treading familiar grounds, and I have to wonder if Andrew’s dalliance with a spider was a not-so-subtle dig at the Sony film? Here’s the deal: despite its claims of an “untold story”, Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” (and most superhero movies based on existing comic books) is still working with decades of established canon that it must adhere to. “Chronicle” has none of those restrictions. And that, really, is why “Chronicle” will still be mentioned months from now even after the blockbusters have come and gone — because it’s very familiar, yet entirely fresh. You don’t have to be a comic book fanboy to appreciate that (“Chronicle” is damn good anyway), but you will certainly appreciate it a lot more if you were.
Josh Trank (director) / Max Landis (screenplay)
CAST: Dane DeHaan … Andrew Detmer
Alex Russell … Matt Garetty
Michael B. Jordan … Steve Montgomery
Michael Kelly … Richard Detmer
Ashley Hinshaw … Casey Letter
Bo Petersen … Karen Detmer
Anna Wood … Monica