If there’s one thing we’ve learned at the cineplex, it’s that hell hath no fury like a teenage outcast with telekinetic powers. First-time director Josh Trank brings us this variation on the Carrie theme updated for the age of faux found footage. Working from a smarter-than-average script by Max (son of John) Landis, he tells the story of three high school students who pretty much become their own science projects.
The cast is composed of little-known but capable, charismatic young actors. Dane DeHaan stars as Andrew, quite possibly the most troubled teen in movie history: In addition to being painfully shy, slight of build and a virgin, he’s forced to deal with a mother who’s dying a slow and painful death at home, an out-of-work alcoholic father who beats him, a pack of neighborhood toughs who beat him, and a gang of vicious classmates who beat him.
Among the apparently minute percentage of suburban Seattle’s population that doesn’t routinely beat Andrew are his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and his newfound bud, Steve (Michael B. Jordan), whom he meets one fateful night at a rave. The party takes place in a barn beside a wooded area, and all three boys wind up investigating a mysterious hole in the ground some distance from the fun. Andrew’s taken to videotaping his life for no discernible reason and dutifully records their subterranean discovery — an object that could be a crystal meteor, a spacecraft or just about anything, really. The point is that the teens’ exposure to it imbues them with telekinetic powers.
Which leads to the film’s finest hour, the part dedicated to portraying three typical teenage boys as they goof around with their new gifts. What charm and freshness Chronicle has derives entirely from these scenes. The kids film themselves at a supermarket where they will grocery carts up and down aisles like remote-controlled toy cars. They make a teddy bear dance in midair to the astonishment of young shoppers at a department store. They direct a distant leaf blower to flip up the skirt of a blushing schoolmate. And, slowly but surely, they learn first to levitate and then to fly. It’s like “Punk’d” with superpowers.
To this point, the picture is captivating and fun. The filmmakers achieve a naturalism that’s rare for the genre, thanks to a combination of wisecracking dialogue and convincing performances. I’d have loved to see where they might have taken the story, had they maintained this course. Unfortunately, Trank and Landis cave instead to the demands of formula, and the result is a third act that lurches awkwardly and abruptly to the dark side.
Two things the world did not need: another climactic fight sequence in which super-types have it out while trashing a major metropolitan area; and one more appropriation of the found-footage gimmick popularized by The Blair Witch Project. Especially one in which the premise proves so totally extraneous to the moviegoing experience.
The idea that the images we’re watching have been recorded by Andrew’s camera adds virtually nothing to the movie’s appeal. If anything, it gets in the way time and time again, as the director clearly struggles to figure out how to place the character in a scene and still allow for his camera — or someone else’s — to be rolling. The device is so pointless that Trank abandons the pretense in the end. Watch the finale and tell me who could possibly be filming. His crew, that’s who.
I’d like to believe that what’s being chronicled here is the death knell for all of this found-footage foolishness. But, even without a super-brain, I know all too well, more’s just around the corner.