There have been dozens of "found footage" or faux-documentary movies in the 13 years since Blair Witch Project, but never has that narrative device felt more forced and unnecessary than in Chronicle. It's like they had a perfectly good idea for a traditional movie but for some reason had to shoot it this way, maybe because they lost a bet, or got drunk and accepted a dare.
And it's a shame, because without that distraction, Chronicle is an entertaining and creative take on the concept of teenage superpowers. Written by Max Landis (son of John) and directed by Josh Trank, both twentysomething newcomers with much evident potential, the film is about a withdrawn high school senior named Andrew (Dane DeHaan) who starts using a video camera to chronicle his sad life: his father (Michael Kelly) is an abusive alcoholic; his mother (Bo Petersen) is bedridden and dying. His cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), a fellow senior, is his only friend.
One night at a house party, Andrew and Matt end up investigating a strange hole in the ground in a nearby field with Steve (Michael B. Jordan), the Most Popular Boy in School. The three come away with telekinetic powers -- minor at first, but growing stronger with use. (The movie couldn't care less about explaining where the powers came from. Aliens? Sure, let's say aliens.) The guys figure out that if they can move objects through the air with their minds, they can move themselves through the air, too, which is to say they can fly. Among the film's very best sequences are the ones that realistically capture the exuberance that anyone would feel while experimenting with such powers. Whether they're soaring through the clouds or using telekinesis to get all the Pringles out of the can, they're believable as everyday teens.
The question for the boys is: what now? They seem to have an unspoken understanding that going public with their abilities would be a bad idea, probably because they've seen enough movies to know they'd only wind up in a government laboratory. When Andrew gets reckless, Matt reins him in. More prudently, Steve uses his own popularity to assist Andrew in getting a chance at success doing "magic tricks" in a school talent show. (Yeah, becoming a magician is definitely the way to make your classmates think you're not a loser.)
But as history, X-Men: First Class, and the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer have taught us, it can be very dangerous for a person with great power to also have great anger. Once the fun and games are over, what are Andrew, Matt, and Steve supposed to do with their abilities? That question is at the center of the film's third act, when it morphs into an exciting action flick with tinges of horror.
Though they have charisma as a group, none of the three main characters are vivid as individuals -- having Matt quote philosophers a few times is not the same thing as giving him a personality -- and the one we're supposed to sympathize with, Andrew, has a life cobbled together from easy cliches.
Still, those drawbacks are nothing compared to the looming problem of the found-footage concept. The movie itself seems exasperated with the gimmick, constantly trying to find ways around it or giving lame explanations for why the characters are filming themselves. (My favorite is when a police officer refers to the camcorder next to an unconscious person's hospital bed and says, "The camera has to stay on for the investigation.") Andrew's angry father discovers his expensive camera and throws a fit about the waste of money it represents -- but leaves it running while they argue, lest the movie audience miss this important scene. One of the first things Andrew does with his telekinesis is use it to make the camera float around him so he doesn't have to hold it all the time. You know what a found-footage movie looks like when it's shot with a floating camera? A regular movie. I gotta say, when even the characters are tired of the movie's gimmick, maybe it's time to retire the gimmick.