Since it found success with The Blair Witch Project in ‘99, “found footage” as a genre continues to find…itself.
With Blair and Paranormal Activity, its purpose was authenticity. In Cloverfield, it was the novelty of putting you in the literal center of a monster movie. Indie Catfish held a meta-mirror up to itself as a self-aware commentary on social media and Gen Y. The latest from the shaky-cam school of filmmaking, superhero movie Chronicle, feels like all of the above, and thus, entirely its own.
The movie opens on Andrew (Dane DeHaan) filming himself in his bedroom as his drunk father tries to break down his door. His home situation is clearly a strain on his social skills, making him a target for bullies. When asked why he RECs everything by his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), Andrew admits it offers a faux sense of security, the camera a “barrier” between himself and others. It’s a confession that sets Chronicle apart from its found-footage contemporaries: The technique informs the protagonist’s character. In a micro-genre where emotional connections often come at the cost of a camcorder distance, Andrew’s reason for keeping a handheld diary is what makes us feel closest to him.
Eventually, he finds the nerve to attend a rave with Matt, where they meet Steve (Michael B. Jordan), venture into a tunnel and unearth a blue orb whose unexplained energy causes them to black out. When they awaken, they’re telekinetic. Trippy, bro.
From here the film delivers on its premise, asking what teenage boys would really do with superhuman powers. Fight crime? Sew costumes out of curtains? More like play pranks, fly for the sake of it and impress girls because in Chronicle, with great power comes no responsibility. The hanging-out dynamic between the actors as they experiment with their abilities is pitch perfect–accessible, real and defiantly art-house considering there’s little in way of plot, just characters. Sure, SFX help too.
The story turns dark once Andrew uses his gifts at the expense of others, an atypical superhero narrative in that it reveals Chronicle to be the origin story of a villain. What starts with an attack on a road-raged driver escalates to his former tormentors and a greater Seattle.
At an extremely lean 75 minutes, Chronicle succeeds in minor ways, successfully mixing elements which call to mind cult anime Akira, the first 12 episodes of Heroes, even Godard’s Breathless (yeah, I went there). Beyond that, its portrayal of teen males are some of the most nurtured I’ve seen recently outside any given episode of Friday Night Lights.
Where Chronicle could’ve easily gone camp, director Josh Trank and screenwriter Matt Landis keep their heroes stripped to hoodies and Jansport backpacks–extra credit for venturing into deeper themes of corrupting power and teenage isolation that dare to evoke Columbine. Where most agree the two shooters of that tragedy were bullied and treated poorly, does it justify their final actions? Of course not. But considering their circumstances, did it make them the comic book definition of evil? That’s the debate raised here. Teenagers aren’t easily split into classrooms of good or bad. Sometimes they’re broken, troubled, confused, scared. Even the ones with super powers.