Chronicle embraces gritty filmmaking

In a time when most superhero stories come swaddled in plastic predictability and giant budgets, sometimes a messier, rougher film comes as a refreshing relief.

Found footage · Andrew Detmar (Dane DeHaan) comes into his telekinetic powers in Chronicle, a film that takes an unusual cinematographic approach, as much of the film is shot by Andrew himself. - Photo courtesy of EPK.TV

Chronicle, directed by Josh Trank, takes the superhero origin story and drags it through the tumultuous mud of high school life. Though Chronicle is not a pretty picture, solid acting and a simple story make the film a fun alternative to typical hero fare.

Chronicle operates under the “found footage” conceit made popular through movies like Cloverfield. Though security cameras and other sources come into play, most of the footage is shot by the main character, Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan).

From the start, Spider-Man’s Peter Parker looks like an argyle-wearing sissy compared to Chronicle’s lead.

Andrew spends most of his day suffering through a bully-filled school, taking care of his dying mom and evading his alcoholic deadbeat dad. He seems like the child who would one day flip out and stab someone — he’s not someone you would want to develop telekinesis and to be able to fling cars around.

Andrew’s world changes when he, his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and his cousin’s friend Steve (Michael B. Jordan) explore a hole in the ground and stumble across a magic crystal object whose origins are unclear. Soon after, the three boys develop nose bleeds and, more impressively, telekinesis.

Chronicle poses a fascinating theoretical scenario: What would happen if boys barely old enough to drive developed superpowers? At this point, our Heroes-meets-Cloverfield flick becomes Heathers-meets-The Blair Witch Project.

The boys take to the skies, dodging airplanes and planning trips to Hawaii. They scare little girls in Wal-Marts and torment teachers by moving their cars. Essentially, they act like teenage boys. And like teenage boys, they throw epic temper tantrums.

Andrew, still feeling alone and neglected, begins to realize he’s a newborn Nietzschean Übermensch. As expected, the fun telekinetic romps come to an end and things get nasty.

The human element of Chronicle stands out as its most distinct feature. The characters feel like people we knew in high school rather than caricatures. One can believe their silly antics because of all the stupid things that people really did in high school, even if real life didn’t involve running cars off the road or pitching policemen through the air.

The actors work well together, possessing believable, earthly charismas similar to those of the actors in Paranormal Activity. Refreshingly, the film does not revolve around romance or coming-of-age tropes, unlike the MTV-esque The Covenant from a few years back.

The “found footage” idea gets a burst of artistry thanks to the childrens’ psychic powers — Andrew learns to levitate the camera, allowing for swooping shots and less shaky camera work. Shots in Chronicle, however, lack the inventiveness of other “found footage” films, such as Paranormal Activity 3’s oscillating fan trick.

Thankfully, the film’s cinematography doesn’t suffer from negative Cloverfield comparisons: The boys’ adventures, such as their first time flying, stay in blissfully plain sight.

Trank does a lot with his $15-million budget to make the CGI and special effects impressive.  The telekinetic antics, from car tipping to sky-high football, are the best part of the film. The nagging question of how someone assembled the “found footage” — and why the government hasn’t seized it — remains unanswered, but at this point the audience can just reason that telekinesis must have intervened.

Chronicle’s main flaw is a lack of pathos. Though the movie satisfies on a mental level, it lacks a solid emotional core. The boys entertain, but it’s hard to feel bad when their lives fall apart: the audience feels interested rather than captivated.

And though the crazy climax draws positive parallels to the seminal anime Akira, which also featured telekinesis and questions of morality, Chronicle falls very short of the visceral fury that made Akira famous.

The film is fun, but not compelling. This stumble might come down to the main characters — though amusing and well-acted, they aren’t likable or written well enough to be genuinely intriguing. It’s interesting and funny to see Andrew, the main character, lose it, but it’s not saddening.

Chronicle won’t rival The Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers for superhero hot pick of the year, but it’s a scrappy endeavor and an action-packed morality play about the downfalls of hubris.  Much like a teenager’s raging hissy fit, Chronicle isn’t particularly momentous, but it is quite fun to watch.