The cinéma vérité style can easily go astray. It can be used more as a lazy way to put the viewer closer to the action without worrying about thoughtful cinematography or good performances. Chronicle avoids the pitfalls by coming up with a good reason why its story should take a found-footage approach instead of a half-assed reason why a character should carry around a camera. Rather than throw non-actors into the fray for “raw” performances (i.e. sloppy), the film places its trust in lead actors who give good performances. There are times when the movie can no longer hold its fake documentary conceit together and at the climax it loses the character drama in favor of a big action scene, but Chronicle manages to be not only a good found-footage movie, but a good movie period.
Andy (Dane DeHaan) picks up a camera and begins documenting his life. He films his abusive father (Michael Kelly), his ill mother (Bo Petersen), getting bullied, having no friends, and basically being treated like the crap on the world’s shoe. When popular kid Steve (Michael B. Jordan) and Andy’s cousin Matt (Alex Russell) discover a giant hole in the ground, they encourage Andy to bring his camera and see what’s going on. They discover an alien object, it begins pulsating, the camera goes out, and when the camera clicks on again after an indeterminate amount of time, we see the guys in a backyard playing with their newfound telekinetic powers. Being teenage boys, they use their powers for mischief and fun, but for Andy, going from powerless to powerful makes it more than a game.
Director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis don’t re-invent the found-footage approach. They provide a reminder that it’s a tool. Like any tool, it can be used effectively or it can be mishandled. The cinéma vérité style works on multiple levels for Chronicle. It grounds the story, it enhances the action, and it allows the plot to skip ahead to the interesting parts by letting the viewer fill in the blank. Most importantly, the style adds depth to Andy’s character. The camera starts out as his barrier between him and other people, and it eventually becomes his ally and the way for him to feel like the hero of his own tale.
Andy’s story teaches us never to underestimate the power of an Uncle Ben and Aunt May, because the irresponsibility and selfishness is what would happen to Peter Parker (but with telekinesis instead of spider-powers). The found-footage isn’t about shoving “gritty realism” in your face; it’s about showing superpowers without the glamour and how careless teenagers would use them; in particular, how Andy would use them. None of the kids are altruistic, but the powers make them close friends, and friendship is what Andy wants more anything. Or at least, that’s what he thinks he wants. What he really wants, and what he’s finally given the chance to do, is retaliate.
For the first half of the film, Chronicle almost plays like a comedy. The guys pull pranks, and discover how they can expand their power in order to do things like fly and form a protective barrier. Their antics are funny and they feel real, not just because of the found-footage aspect, but because DeHaan, Jordan, and Russell have such strong chemistry. But when the plot hits a turning point, the movie makes a sharp turn into a dramatic thriller, and leaves behind any trace of a light-hearted buddy flick.
When we lose sight of Andy, the story is lesser for it. Not only is DeHaan terrific, but a romantic subplot involving Matt and a female video blogger (Ashley Hinshaw) serves only as a distraction and adds nothing to the story. When the third act rolls around and the movie begins abandoning Andy’s camera for security footage, cell phone cameras, and whatever video recording device is in the area, then the story-telling device loses its power. The film must now work for the found-footage approach instead of the other way around. The action is enjoyable enough, but we’ve taken a step back and now wonder, “Who edited all of this together? Who got access to all of this footage?”
Thankfully, by the time the movie reaches that point, we’re invested in the characters and want to see how they finish their journey. Chronicle is a case study in responsibly using a potentially powerful storytelling technique. Like its main characters, Chronicle understands that it has a great power that can be wielded in more ways that one. But unlike its young protagonists, Chronicle uses its power responsibly. Uncle Ben would be proud (still dead, but proud).
Click here for our video interviews with the cast and director Josh Trank.