What happens when you give a trio of teen boys superpowers?
Maybe they'll goof off. Or maybe they'll decide to wreck a major city in a fit of adolescent angst.
In "Chronicle," they do both.
A cleverly twisted take on the superhero origin story, "Chronicle" is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of superpowers: There may be a superhero in all of us - but there might also be a supervillain.
Shot in a faux-documentary, found-footage digital video style that at first resembles the fake monster-invasion movie "Cloverfield," "Chronicle" is the story of three teenage boys who gain superpowers, including the mysterious ability to ensure that the camera is always on and pointed in just the right direction whenever something important is happening.
Convenient, right? Well, yes, but unlike "Cloverfield" and other similarly YouTube-inspired genre riffs, "Chronicle" pulls it off by making the camera an integral part of the story.
The movie starts with a black screen and the raw plastic click of a video camera lens cap coming off. From there we see what the camera sees, and people react to the presence of a camera as you might actually expect. For the first hour or so, that means following Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan, who has the look of a gawky Leonardo DiCaprio). Andrew, a scrawny high school geek, winds up as part of a trio of teen boys with telekinesis, which grants them the ability to use mind power to manipulate objects - including themselves when they learn to fly.
For Andrew, that also includes the camera, which floats eerily around him like some ghostly voyeur. It's a storytelling gimmick, but with the camera's movement literally an extension of his mind, it's also a metaphor for Andrew's heavily mediated inner life; he's a gentle nerd who prefers to deal with the world from behind the barrier of a lens.
Although the three boys quickly bond over their newfound powers, Andrew's history of social awkwardness puts a strain on the relationship. The other boys - his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and the aspiring school president Steve (Michael B. Jordan) - run with more popular crowds. Eventually, that strain reaches a breaking point.
"Chronicle" belongs not only to the found footage horror genre of movies like "Cloverfield" and "The Blair Witch Project," but also to a recent wave of superhero comics that reimagine classic superhero tropes in a more realistic contemporary setting. Comic book creators like Mark Millar ("Kick-Ass," "Superior") and Brian Michael Bendis ("Powers," "Scarlet") have spent the last few years producing stories that ask some version of the question: What if someone actually got superpowers, or became a superhero?
Director Josh Trank, in his debut feature, buys the movie's realist credibility not just with its mumbling teen-speak naturalism, but with his clever use of simple special effects, which blend seamlessly into the movie's viral video world.
Mr. Trank and screenwriter Max Landis don't just recognize the profusion of digital video devices, they use them to tell their story. By the end of the movie, Andrew's camera is gone, but the final sequence - a massive superpowered brawl through the streets of downtown Seattle - is captured via an array of surveillance devices and handheld cell phone cameras.
"Chronicle" isn't a deconstruction of superhero myths so much as an attempt to take them to their logical conclusions, and see how they might play out in a world that looks like our own. With great power, it seems to say, doesn't always come great responsibility. But in this case, it does bring us a pretty nifty movie.
★ ★ ★
CREDITS: Directed by Josh Trank, screenplay by Max Landis
RATING: Rated PG-13 for adolescent sexual innuendo, violence
RUNNING TIME: 83 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS