Film Review: Chronicle

This tale of three teenage boys who bond and cavort after being suddenly invested with supernatural powers is quite effective. The only thing is, it's not really scary. Revenge, yes. Chills and thrills, no.

Director Josh Trank uses the cinéma-vérité–style device of “found footage” in Chronicle, referencing The Blair Witch Project and making us think of the Gothic bits of Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. Relative newcomer Trank, who put together the highly successful Internet phenomenon and YouTube video Stabbing at Leia’s, was a good choice. But Chronicle turns out to be—surprise!—a morality tale of good versus evil in the guise of a supernatural thriller: a phony faux doc.

It’s also a terrific object lesson in (not) bullying. Chronicle starts from the point of view of Andrew (Dane de Haan of HBO’s “In Treatment”), a loner who hides behind his camera and films his lousy life: There are bullies in his high school and a drunken bully at home (his dad, played by Michael Kelly). “This is my school. Those are the official douche bags of my street,” Andrew narrates engagingly. We are in total sympathy with him when his schoolmates say, “Look, a nerd with a camera,” then take a punch at him and his ever-present camera. Andrew’s sometime companion is his more well-rounded and popular cousin Matt (a very cute Alex Russell), who occasionally quotes Schopenhauer—though he sort of seems too well-integrated for that—and the two eventually pal around with the extroverted Steve (Michael B. Jordan of “The Wire” and Red Tails), a charismatic high-school leader.

Everybody knows that mockumentaries—especially those with paranormal spookiness—are fake, but it’s nice to get taken in for a while. In Chronicle, you only get nervous very briefly, as the trio descend into a hole in the woods, and get exposed to something which transfers uncanny powers. We never see said “something” again.

Of films in the found-footage subgenre which have a low initial investment but spectacularly high profits, The Blair Witch Project looked like a cheap and spontaneously made doc, though ultimately it was revealed there were a few vérité holes in its storyline. Oren Peli, the story-creator and director of the first Paranormal Activity, was an out-of-the loop video-maker who shopped his homemade film around for a couple years before it hit. Chronicle is a movie with a handheld look about an outsider, but put together by industry insiders. The tip-off comes right away: Our three heroes are played by highly accomplished and recognizable young actors, the director is known to web cognoscenti, and the screenwriter is Max Landis, son of John (The Blues Brothers). In fact, the script is so hip, it has the first cinematic “in-joke” about Mormons.

Much will be made of Chronicle’s transition from found footage to the omniscient camera—who’s filming when it’s not Andrew? But it’s easy to suspend disbelief as the guys use their powers for some high-school type pranks, discover that they can fly (with some spectacular shots of sky and mountains), and manage to wreak havoc on the city of Seattle. Still, the most viscerally upsetting sequence is a telekinetic dental extraction from the mouth of a tormenting schoolmate.

“Hubris” is a buzzword in the film (not your usual teen thriller dialogue). Indeed, it took some chutzpah for the filmmakers to use images of men falling from the sky, both in pre-publicity and in the film, betting that we have sufficiently superseded our 9-11 memories. Chronicle is above all a kind of revenge of the nerd, balanced out by a little mysticism and meditation-lite. There are no worries about disarming the supernatural or getting exorcised, but how to 1) access those powers and 2) put them to the best possible use, a refreshingly old-fashioned concern in a youth-appeal movie. For a truly freaky found-footage movie, grab Bertrand Tavernier’s 1980 Death Watch, with Harvey Keitel having a camera implanted in his brain so he can secretly film a famous actress with a fatal disease.