As a child, in varying degrees, we often reach a place in life where we ponder what it would be like to have superpowers. Or daydream about the possibility of being superhuman and able to withstand anything life throws our way. Would we throw out the rulebook and live our lives without fear of repercussions? Would we use our abilities for goodwill and to aid in helping our fellow man? Perhaps we would we selectively use it, subtly and without provocation?
Three teenage boys ponder these thoughts in Chronicle, an intriguing and notable feature film debut from director and co-screenwriter Josh Trank. Set in my stomping grounds of Seattle (but mostly shot in Seattle’s photogenic doppelganger of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), we initially find Chronicle opening up as another entry in the exhausted found footage genre of science-fiction and horror story filmmaking. To my surprise, Trank and lead screenwriter Max Landis find ways to overcome those trappings and deliver a unique and compelling story that transcends its initial stifling premise.
After acquiring a slightly outdated video camera, high school junior Andrew (Dane DeHaan) decides to document every waking moment of his life. Andrew is reserved, quiet, keeps to himself, and is the victim of frequent bullying at his local high school. Things are worse at home as Andrew is targeted by an angry, abusive, and alcoholic father and endures the pain of his mother suffering from cancer, perhaps in her last days.
Conversely, Matt (Alex Russell), Andrew’s cousin, is popular at school and tries to stay connected to Andrew but travels a different path. The most popular guy in school, Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) is running for Senior class president and after Matt convinces Andrew to attend a weekend rave, the lives of Andrew, Matt, and Steve are going to come together in the most unexpected of ways. Alone at the party, Andrew is approached by Steve who commands Andrew to come with him and film something amazing. Andrew at first had no idea that Steve was friends with Matt and begrudgingly goes with Steve, unsure of what he will find. Out in a remote forest clearing, Matt is standing over a gigantic hole, with no idea on its origins. Steve and Matt are excited, Andrew is nervous and before long Steve, Matt, and Andrew are down in the hole, running through the cave-like path and what they find changes their lives forever.
Without revealing a whole lot, something strange and bizarre is found in the hole and the next morning, the three boys discover strange and expansive abilities that they struggle to keep hidden. Day by day their abilities evolve until they are truly able to pull off incredible and unfathomable superhuman feats. They also seem to have the ability of telekinesis, telepathy, and suffer random nosebleeds. For the first hour, Chronicle presents their tale with youthful curiosity and excitement, until one of the three boys begins to wonder how he can use his superpowers in darker and more sinister ways.
I am told the trailer reveals which of this triad succumbs to the dark side, but to be safe, I will spare the reveal. In its second half, Chronicle takes a marked turn from engaging and exuberant to menacing and sinister. While the motivations are skirted over and the emotional arc happens too conveniently and haphazardly, the film nonetheless finds another level in which to execute its story. And throughout Chronicle, I was pleasantly surprised by what I was seeing.
For a found footage film, there are questions that are simply flat out ignored; namely, who assembled the footage and why? With the situation these characters ultimately find themselves in, who would want this footage seen and shown? In the fictionalized world of Chronicle, are there other individuals with similar abilities that are using this information as a precautionary tale? Who knows and if the film was not executed so well, I would labor on these points. Chronicle is crafted impressively and for a low-budget risk, Josh Trank and his team got the most for their money with impressive visual effects that serve realistic, believable, and in the final violent coda, which takes place in the streets and skyline of Seattle, fully plausible.
Chronicle is not the greatest film you will ever see and it does not redefine “found footage” moviemaking as worthy and important. Chronicle merely takes a youthful idea everyone has considered at one point in their lives and runs with it, postulating as to what might happen if someone took the thought of possessing those superpowers one dark and troubling step further. A famous quote from Nietzsche says, in part, that “it is through being wounded that power grows and can, in the end, become tremendous.” Chronicle may use the word tremendous in a much different way, but power, it reminds us, can simply be too much for some people to resist.