The further I get away from my high school years, the more those days seem like a rose-tinted ball of nostalgia, even though at the time I was pretty miserable. I was a senior when the Columbine shootings happened and, until graduation, that event seemed to bring everyone in school closer. As school shootings have become either less frequent or less publicized, films set in high school have once again become focused on the us-vs.-them mentality.
Characters are drawn as black and white, leaving no room for shades of grey. Chronicle addresses this by having three complex main characters that don't fit into any of the boxes in which Hollywood normally places teenage characters. They are heroic, selfish, hopeless, moral and morally bankrupt. In other words, they're human, which makes them fascinating to watch. Oh, and they have superpowers.
Andrew Detmer is the school whipping boy. When he's done getting shoved around at school, he comes home to his dying mother and his unemployed, alcoholic father. In an attempt to catch his father being abusive (and to put a barrier between himself and the rest of the world), Andrew buys a camera and starts videotaping everything he sees.
Things change toward the fantastic when Andrew goes to a rave with his cousin, Matt, and Matt's friend Steve (Michael B. Jordan who played Wallace on The Wire). Before the night is over the trio stumbles across a mysterious hole in the ground and climb inside. Once at the bottom, they find a glowing, alien-like object that bestows them with telekinetic powers.
The rest of the film could have coasted by on teenage wish-fulfillment fantasies, but writer and director Josh Trank isn't interested in making an X-Men rip-off. Instead, he examines headier topics, like whether gentle souls can be corrupted by absolute power and whether some acts are beyond redemption. Andrew is damaged (possibly irrevocably) by his father's hatred and malice and, when given the increasingly powerful ability to move things with his mind, his instincts don't necessarily lead him down the path of righteousness.
He's not a typical sympathetic outsider. It's sometimes easy to see why he's unpopular in school. He's constantly running away to cry, or lashing out petulantly at his friends who care deeply about him. But just as I started to find Andrew a little tiring, the beautifully structured screenplay made my issues with his character meaningless.
Chronicle is not without its flaws. Sometimes Trank's ambitions exceed the budget. There are multiple moments where the effects come up short, appearing green screened and phony. That's a shame because whenever it happens, the audience is jarringly awakened from the film's spell.
My other issue was with the performance of Dane DeHaan as Andrew. He is wonderfully natural at the start of the film, but as Andrew's power grows, his acting chops seem to diminish. If DeHaan's work had been more consistent, Andrew could have been one of the most complicated and fascinating characters in years.
Chronicle feels like an alternate universe in which Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris ended up finding superpowers instead of buying guns. But where Klebold and Harris isolated themselves with video games and pipe bombs, Andrew teaches himself how to levitate his camera and move it around the room so he can create something rather than destroy it. Chronicle suffuses that feeling of gradual acceptance with just enough magic to be a powerful reminder that there is something great in all of us.
Starring Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly and Ashley Hinshaw
Directed by Josh Trank