"This is just... this is what I'm doing now, I'm filming everything."
So, I've officially seen the first great film of 2012. It sounds funny to say it, but Chronicle might be the most realistic portrayal of what it's like to be a teenager in America since Welcome to the Dollhouse. This is the kind of film that gets virtually everything right, and that's a rare commodity when dealing with characters in high school. Films set in high school try, and fail, to achieve this kind of verisimilitude through easily labeling people as the nerd, the jock, the outcast, etc. when in actuality people are really shades of grey and aren't so easily pigeonholed.
It's also strange to find this kind of truth in what is more or less a science fiction film. I don't know how else to categorize it, but that seems like the most fair genre assignment. The film is about three teenagers, starting with Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a bit of an outcast who has a terminally ill mother and a drunk and abusive father. He begins documenting his life for reasons that are never fully explained. Is it because he's afraid of his father's outbursts and wants to catch him on film? Is it because he has no way of connecting to people, so he creates a barrier between himself and the people around him? Is it because the film requires it of him in order to exist? It's more than likely a combination of the three, but most other films in the "found footage" genre that has exploded lately have built this premise on far more wobbly ground (I'm looking at you Cloverfield).
Andrew's only real friend is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), the perfect example of a guy everyone went to high school, the guy who's not super popular, but not an outcast, and spends all of his free time reading various philosophers in an attempt to shape his worldview. If you didn't go to high school with a guy like this, you were that guy. The two cousins attend a rave (they still have those?) one night and Matt discovers a giant hole in the ground just down a hill from the party, along with one of the most popular kids in school, Steve (Michael B. Jordan). They ask Andrew to come film the hole in the ground, and when the three go down into the hole to explore, they come across a mysterious quartz-looking entity that is radiating light and noise.
The film suddenly cuts to three weeks later, and the three have now formed a friendship based around their mutual discovery of telekinetic abilities that came from their encounter with whatever was in that hole. I have to stop and say how much I loved how organic the friendship between the three builds. It's a true stroke of realism that one of the most popular kids in school just becomes friends with these guys because he's a genuinely nice person. There's none of that, "you're too cool to be our friend" or "why are you guys so weird" dialogue that would easily sink a film like this. Their friendship develops and I don't only buy it, it likely sold me on the film as a whole.
Matt develops a theory that their telekinetic abilities are like a muscle that needs to be worked to develop fully, yet can also tear with too much pressure put on it. That's the only real stab at rationalizing these abilities that anyone makes, and the film is much better as a result. If it had gotten bogged down in analytical conversations, it would have sunk the whole film. Instead, these are teenagers, running around and fucking with people through their new found superpowers, and it's what makes the film so thoroughly believable. This is what kids with telekinesis would do, and while I am surprised by the lack of undressing of girls they do, I'm more surprised with how much the film actually wants to invest in the reality of a fairly unlikely scenario.
I am an unabashed admirer of The Blair Witch Project, and I haven't seen anything that has approached that film's realism until Chronicle. It's the first film that has taken the time to make you care about the characters and how they react to the predicament, as opposed to the other way around, which seems to be the stock in trade for most found footage films in the interim. The turn of events that happens in the last twenty minutes or so of the film will likely lose a lot of people, but I feel it's a very natural progression, and I bought it 100%. I'm curious to talk to someone who felt otherwise, because I could very easily see someone becoming infuriated by the third act of this film.
The three main actors are all genuinely good. DeHaan resembles a gawkier Leonardo DiCaprio, and plays an abused social outcast very well, with tons of empathy. Jordan is fantastic, the kind of young actor who brings a ton of magnetism to an otherwise underwritten role, and you can genuinely see why he would be the most popular kid in school. Russell has the hardest part to play, and he does a pretty great job of playing someone who's endless readings of various philosophers would inform his decision making in light of being given superpowers.
This is a film that I cannot recommend highly enough. It's awesome, in the truest sense of the word. It makes you contemplate what you would have done if you had gotten powers at that age, and you'll find yourself marveling at how much these kids are just like you, as much as you may think they aren't. It's the kind of film you can just get lost in and have a great time doing so, and I recommend you do that sooner rather than later. This is the kind of film that deserves to make tons of money at the box office, and I truly look forward to what not only these young actors do next, but also what director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (son of John) do next. They've all got talent to spare, and I hope someone can tap into it this well again.