Reviewed by: David Graham

An inspired mash-up of Cloverfield, Carrie and a million superhero origin tales, Josh Trank's debut manages to impress through nifty direction on a relatively low budget, slow-burning performances from promising newcomers and a thoughtful, perceptive script by Max (son of John) Landis that refreshingly takes the perspective of the potential villain. Putting aside any notion of nepotism and the found-footage fad's current bankability, it's heartening to see Hollywood get behind two 26-year-olds - and for them to fulfill their undoubted ambition so economically.

Andrew Detmer is a typical high-school loner with a terminally ill mother and abusive father, who turns to technology to capture and hopefully repel the latter's alcohol-addled rages. Bolstered by his new but unfashionably old-school camera, Andrew starts documenting his daily travails, which usually begin with a ride to school from his philosophy-spouting and more comfortably outcast cousin Matt, but inevitably lead to bullying, upset and introversion, all of which may or may not be exacerbated by his new hobby. In a begrudging attempt to make social headway, Andrew accompanies Matt to a rave, where popular polito-jock Steve enlists his film-making services to capture a bizarre rabbit-hole in the woods. Further investigation leaves the trio with telekinetic powers, which they soon learn to develop like 'muscles', bringing them frivolous hilarity in the short term but a more profound sense of unity as their experience draws them together. However, the group's attempts to stay responsible are threatened by the temptation to abuse their gift for social gain and personal satisfaction.

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Screaming out of nowhere like one of its supernaturally-enabled protagonists, Chronicle is laying down a gauntlet (like the similarly mounted Cloverfield did at the exact same time of year) to the imminent deluge of big-budget blockbuster sequels and franchise-starters, Tranks and Landis effectively demonstrating that you don't need name recognition, excessive CGI, or a bloated run-time when you've got characters worth caring about and a story that doesn't cop out on its concept. Yes, there are moments when the special effects don't seem up to scratch, and there are occasionally cringe-worthy exchanges between our teen (anti-)heroes, but for the most part Chronicle knows its limits and delivers spectacularly on its promise.

The progress of the friends' power-wielding is brilliantly gradual; you're with them every step of the way, sharing the thrill of putting together Lego blocks, blowing up girls' skirts and punkishly public displays that scare kiddies and play pranks on shoppers (in a nicely satiric moment of supernatural GTA, Steve comments that this time the black guy did actually do it). For all the initial larking about though, Landis' script adds psychologically resonant shades of jealousy, mischief and temptation to each situation, while the burden of their powers starts to fracture the group and impinge upon their relationships in the normal world.

The characters are all more well-drawn than they first seem, with realistic urges and a John Hughes-style vulnerability that can seem merely comic in most superhero stories. Alex Russell and Michael B Jordan are both handsome and likable enough to keep the audience onside with their more predictable teen-movie arcs (the awkward misfit getting the hot girl, the got-it-all guy giving a leg-up to the loser), but it's True Blood's Dane DeHaan's multi-layered performance as the damaged and dangerous Andrew that really gives Chronicle its emotional kick. Coming on like an under-nourished pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio, DeHaan initially plays the monotone weakling with sly nuance, giving the character a sardonic wit while providing plenty of pathos to involve us in his plight.

However, as he moves out from behind the camera (his powers cannily allowing the director to sidestep the genre's usual shakicam indulgences), Andrew emerges as a sinister but sad monster, unwilling to compromise on how he uses his ever-evolving skills and unable to control his deadly rages. Landis throws a few nicely underplayed plot-points into the mix - such as the boys' telepathic connection - to keep the three central characters together, but the core of the drama lies with DeHaan, and he nails Andrew's journey with aplomb.

Apparently Chronicle was written to be much more violent - a chilling scene involving a hapless spider gives an indication of how events might otherwise have played out - but it's probably to the studio's credit that the script was toned down, since the action that remains is breathtakingly visceral as it is. The finale tightrope walks on the right side of ridiculous - just - with its teenage protagonists smashing through their surroundings and each other like miniscule monsters in a reverse-Godzilla movie. You'd be forgiven for comparing the film to all kinds of silly horror flicks if it had been gorier and tried to go for frights (it already owes a definite debt to pathetic Ozploitation Carrie rip-off Patrick), but as it stands Chronicle's climax focuses more on disaster-movie-scale destruction and impending human tragedy, the threat of which really keeps the viewer on seat-edge right to the end. Security cameras and bystanders' mobile recording devices fill in for us as events get more intense, inventively giving us an ever-shifting viewpoint from which to behold the unpredictable carnage, but to the director's credit our focus remains on the characters' fates.

It's pretty astonishing how much Tranks and Landis pack into their 83 minutes, achieving their various goals with bloody-minded tenacity. The script takes us on a psychologically convincing and emotionally resonant journey, through the trio's initial excitement, to their gift becoming a given, and eventually their delusions of grandeur, fueled by cod-philosophy and society's injustices. Landis has plenty to say about modern youth's technology-fixated outlook, as well as portraying domestic dysfunction with sincerity and intelligence, never quite painting things in patronising black and white. An unnecessary coda is something of a pat come-down for what has gone before, while women are mostly relegated to unflattering sideline roles throughout, but overall Chronicle is an immensely enjoyable and engrossing spin on several well-worn themes and genres, promising further great things to come for and from its youthful creators.

Reviewed on: 04 Feb 2012
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Gaining superpowers exposes three friends to dangerous temptations.
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Director: Josh Trank

Writer: Max Landis

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Alex Russell, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw

Year: 2012

Runtime: 83 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: UK, US


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