(by Dustin Putman
Doing for superhero films what 2008's "Cloverfield" did for monster and alien-invasion pics, "Chronicle" needs only a thrifty reported $12-million price tag to achieve a dizzyingly massive scope, legitimately escalating thrills, and an overall creative and thematic resourcefulness that films with four to ten times the budget will undeniably be envious of. Discovering its many pleasures, with each new scene deliciously upping the ante, is one of 2012's most unexpected moviegoing surprises thus far. With little buzz behind it, first-time director Josh Trank has managed to fly under the radar as he prepped, shot and edited a work of pop art that has seemingly come out of nowhere to wake audiences from their complacent doldrums. While respecting the rules of classic comic book tales about super-powered heroes and foes, Trank and screenwriter Max Landis have simultaneously gathered the nerve to both rewrite and reinvent them—and, for that matter, found-footage films—in awe-inspiring ways. It is not hyperbole to suggest that 2008's "The Dark Knight" now has a companion as the best of the best in its subgenre. Article continues below
High school outcast Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) has next to no friends, a tough home life, and a digital camera with which he's begun to document his sad everyday existence. With an abusive alcoholic father (Michael Kelly) and a mother (Bo Petersen) slowly dying of cancer, Andrew at first sees the camera as a way of capturing his mom forever and gathering incriminating evidence against his pops. Then, in an instant, it becomes so much more than that. At a barn party his cousin, Matt Garrety (Alex Russell), has dragged him to, Andrew is lured into the woods by popular golden-boy classmate Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) and shown a mysterious hole he and Matt have discovered in the ground. When their investigation leads them to something purely unexplainable and alive, they walk away changed young men with the mental abilities to telekinetically move objects. It's all fun and games at first—like a muscle, the power must be built up gradually or risk being strained (they get nose bleeds when they push themselves too hard)—until Andrew's use of his abilities nearly gets someone killed. Matt and Steve are adamant that they should only use their powers for good, but as Andrew's life begins to unravel anew with pressures suffocatingly weighing him down, the temptations of what he knows he is capable of soon become too great to deny.
To synopsize "Chronicle" is to not even begin to dig beneath the surface of just how imaginative, dynamic and wholly immersive the experience is, or to suggest what lofty places it dares to journey within its uncompromising story. If 2010's bloody, profane "Kick-Ass" was prematurely labeled a game-changer upon release, it has nothing on this film's vibrant, uninhibited aims of revitalization. On the one hand, it is a dark snapshot of coming-of-age, one where the human subject cannot quite catch a break no matter how hard he tries for things to get better. Andrew's personal camera-recording pity party—even Matt mostly hangs out with him because they're related—collides with his very own sci-fi mystery when he is emboldened—or is that infected?—with powers far beyond what any human has been able to do in the history of man. Andrew, Matt and Steve start hanging out more regularly, joined together by a shared experience they are careful not to reveal to others. Andrew feels more accepted for a while, but then he seems to be right back where he started in the cutthroat hierarchy of his school, his hesitancy to trust his new buddies' motives continually plaguing him as his personal sense of empowerment turns him into someone he no longer can recognize. By then, it may be too late to turn things around for him and Matt and Steve—lives deceptively bettered before they're destroyed by an enigmatic contact with an otherworldly presence they have no way of understanding.
Before the film takes a grimmer, no less astonishing turn into thriller territory, director Josh Trank exhibits all of the joy, the wonder, and the senses of boundless freedom and discovery that would naturally arise from such a heightened situation. Funny scenes of teenage prankdom—as when they make a female shopper race down her runaway shopping cart or confound another woman when they park her car in a different spot from where she left it—segue into much bigger experiments of the mind. A set-piece where the three guys discover they can fly and collectively take to the sky is so breathtaking as to leave viewers speechless. It is a rare, cherished thing these days to capture something never before seen on film in quite the same way, and this one auspiciously, rousingly manages it. When, during a sleepover that night, Matt announces that he thinks it has been the best day of his entire life, all that Andrew and Steve can do is silently agree. As an audience seeing first-hand what Andrew's eventually free-floating camera lens has seen, we have experienced what they have—all of the hovering and flying and swooping amongst the clouds, thousands of feet in the sky—and don't doubt Matt's feelings for a second.
Faux-documentaries face an uphill battle in two ways: the acting must be 100% naturalistic so as to not seem like acting at all, and they must somehow tell their stories without becoming a derivative, shaky-cammed aping of past like-minded films like 1999's "The Blair Witch Project" and 2007's "[REC]." In other words, and in every way, artifice must not exist in the equation, or else dopey wannabes like 2008's "Diary of the Dead" or 2012's "The Devil Inside" result from the ashes of amateurish filmmaking. "Chronicle" gets it right, casting unknown talents who are, for now, inseparable from their characters. Dane DeHaan paints a poignant picture of teenage alienation and longing as our primary guide and protagonist Andrew. Just because he is the one we care most about and root for doesn't make him immune, however, the psychologically broken guy he becomes nothing at all like the weak, downtrodden kid he is at the beginning. It's a particularly edgy, complex arc for a newcomer to take on, and DeHaan's indelible imprint on the part is a stunner. Alex Russell, playing Matt as a care-free sort who grows through responsibility and the realization that he cares about his cousin more than he thought he did, and Michael B. Jordan (2012's "Red Tails"), blessing Steve with compassionate shades one doesn't usually find in the so-called "big-man-on-campus" character, are equally terrific. In smaller but pivotal roles, Bo Petersen touchingly sheds all glimmers of vanity to play Andrew's gravely ill mother and Ashley Hinshaw is a sparkling find as classmate Casey, a blogger who slowly disarms herself to Matt while getting wrapped up in a threat far beyond her wildest beliefs.
In an age when cinema so sparsely amazes anymore—it seems like everything's been done and seen before—"Chronicle" is a motion picture that does just that, again and again. Faced with a life without the one person whom he knows truly cares about him—his mother—Andrew's desperate actions in the third act pave the way for a brazen finale that thoroughly outdoes itself. Literally taking on the guise of both a Greek tragedy and the craziest roller-coaster one has ever rode, the city of Seattle is rocked by forces beyond its control in a magnificent set-piece so ingeniously crafted and shot that it just might make the biggest action-centric directors in Hollywood weep with envy. Overflowing in subtle nuggets of info and sly clues as to where a sequel might go—and rest assured that there is definitely enough left open for an eagerly-awaited continuation—the film leaves its audience rattled and giddy, craving more even as it has gone above and beyond what could have been reasonably expected. "The Avengers," "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Amazing Spider-Man"—all of this year's upcoming superhero releases better be bringing something mighty groundbreaking to the table. If not, they'd be wise to just go home now. Who wants to go back when "Chronicle" has found a way to bring them so far forward?