Once a character becomes a protagonist, they tend to cease being a human. Flaws are sacrificed to maximize appeal for an audience, rendering the behavior of a character unrecognizable to someone from planet Earth. That this is dull beyond belief goes without saying. Having flawed, stupid, offensive, or otherwise shitheaded characters make stories far more involving since we can recognize a bit of ourselves in them. This is borne in mind in Chronicle, which posits a creation story for three kids who acquire telekinesis from an unidentified source. Most superheroes in pop culture got their powers at random, yet the powers are invariably held by principled individuals. Either one is an altruistic guardian or an epic villain. Well, powers can be exercised by nitwits, too. This theme was explored poorly in Jumper, where a teleporting dullard used his godlike powers to gather a little cash and eat a sandwich on the Sphinx. Well, this movie executes its task quite well, and declares its first-time director as a surprising talent.
In Chronicle, three average high school kids acquire great power from a Somethingorother, and find they can move objects with their mind, and with time can move themselves, and greater objects. Rather than proceeding to heroic actions, the characters actually act like high school kids, which is not only refreshing, but more interesting than the standard storyline. They are not especially bright, imaginative, or introspective, and despite one of their number regularly trying to quote Jung or whatever, the dialogue is almost entirely idiotic rearrangements of “Dude! Bro! We got to do something!” Annoying to listen to, but this is how people generally speak, rarely with any threat of proper grammar or profundity. They have no imagination, so the time is spent pegging each other with rocks, lifting up skirts with leafblowers, or committing pranks on others. Really, these are kids being kids, and without much thought beyond the next minute. With time, their strength increases, their abilities open doors that they recklessly explore, and anger allows the story to take an inevitable trip into violence. One is a popular Dude who is none too ambitious and hence unlikely to cause harm; one is an extremely popular jock who would probably have become a superhero if he weren’t the black guy; and the last is the socially inept loner with a video camera.
The loner (Andrew) is the best-written character, meaning he turns out to be the most flawed. One thing Chronicle does well is capture the psychosis factory that is high school. As taxpayer-subsidized babysitting, it functions as a prison where the strong torture the weak in training for adult life where pretty much the same thing happens except the upper classes and cops replace the jocks. At least that is how it appears to the socially backward. Rather than the sort of fiction where the misfit becomes a champion when given power, in Chronicle the misfit remains so, except able to wreak havoc on those who were cruel to him. In a way, these beatings become a way to figure out one’s place in the world, and a chance to learn how to counter the attacks of the strong. Andrew only becomes the strong, and exerts as much cruelty as he can muster. The Dude is a cipher who is interested more in safety than telekinesis.† It is notable that his cool guy character suggests that the socially inward types are best sequestered by rigid social structures or else workplace shootings would become commonplace – you don’t often see calls for a garrison of the nerdpen.
I should mention this is a found-footage film, meaning lots of shaky-cam and migraines, but it is skillfully done. The power to move stuff enables the camera to float around, so the shots are more steady and cinematic at times. The special effects are pretty good considering the budget is modest, and it makes great use of an increasingly large sandbox for the three to play in. The bulk of the film is given to discovery of these powers, which is vicarious fun, and the story is allowed to find its own way. Ultimately, Chronicle rests on some superhero movie cliches to close out the film, but for the most part this is entertaining and interesting. The film announces Josh Trank as a name to watch, capable of crafting something unique and thoughtful with no budget in a crowded marketplace.