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February 5, 2012

After a decade of development hell, it’s pretty certain that we’re never going to get a live-action adaptation of Akira. But that’s okay; we have Chronicle, which is not only less confusing than Akira, but is probably better than a live-action version of that movie could be by this point.

This film may also be the first really productive use of first-person cinematography. I don’t say “found footage”, because unlike other recent examples — The Devil Inside, Paranormal Activity 3, Apollo 18 — there’s no pretense that this “actually happened”. Instead, the bulk of the film is mediated by the handheld camera of Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), who has recently decided to “film everything”. At first blush this seems a bit silly, but when I think back to my own high school days, it’s pretty much the sort of thing I could see someone doing.

Andrew doesn’t really fit in; when he isn’t flat-out ignored at school, he’s getting bullied. Unfortunately, that seems to continue at home where his alcoholic, ex-firefighter father (Michael Kelly) draws too little on his disability check to cover the medication Andrew’s mother needs. A few swings he takes makes me wonder if on some level Andrew is looking to document the abuse he suffers. The closest thing Andrew has to a friend is his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), who’s the sort of smart kid who makes a show of holding himself above all this high school stuff.

Matt drags Andrew along to a rave, asking him to leave his camera behind, but Andrew brings it anyway. And it’s lucky he does, since some of the kids find a weird hole in the ground some distance into the woods. Matt sends the popular Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) to get Andrew and the camera to document the hole, and they all clamber down inside. I mean, if there’s a big, stinky hole making weird noises in the middle of the woods and I have no safety equipment, the first thing I’m going to do is to jump in.

We catch up with the boys three weeks later; Steve has replaced Andrew’s camera as it was damaged in the hole, and they’re shooting video of each other in the back yard. Evidently, they’ve all started showing some telekinetic abilities. The tricks start small, making thrown baseballs curve in uncanny ways, but they quickly branch out. Like a muscle, the ability grows as they use it, and soon their power threatens to run away faster than they can control it, especially Andrew’s.

Large sections of the film play a bit like a special effects reel; we watch as they assemble Lego structures, flip Pringles into their mouths, or play pranks on shoppers in a toy store. But it’s hard to blame the filmmakers for showing off a bit to pad their résumés, since this is the first feature for both director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis — yes, the son of John Landis. And besides, they earn the right to goof around sometimes by putting plenty of solid material into the rest of the film.

The story may not be the most original, but Landis and Trank prove that they’re smart enough to execute it well, with subtexts and allusions to demonstrate their command of cinematic structure. And they do actually manage to show some creativity with the form; what better way to escape the strictures of hand-held camera work than to set it up so that your protagonist doesn’t actually need to use his hands? Chronicle shows what’s possible from the genre, and what we can expect from these talented young filmmakers.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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