Andrew (Dane DeHaan) points his new video camera toward his ailing mother (Bo Petersen), and she asks, “Who’s the audience?” He lightly replies, “Just millions of people watching at home.” Actually, he’s started recording his family life to document the abusive behavior of his father (Michael Kelly), an out-of-work firefighter whose inability to pay for his dying wife’s medication has spurred a rage he vents on his teenage son. But the friend-free Andrew will have other uses for his obsessive videophilia: to give meaning to his life by filming it, maybe to objective the other kids at school as fantasy villains and vixens. And also — when Andrew, his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and their classmate Steve (Michael B. Jordan) get zapped by magic crystals and acquire telekinetic powers — to video all the supercool things they can do. In Andrew’s case, killer-cool.
The simultaneously diverting and annoying Chronicle, directed by Josh Trank, is something like the 184th Found-Footage Faux-Doc horror movie of the past few years. A sibling in the pop-entertainment family that spawned reality TV as a game show (Survivor) and a game of show-and-tell (The Office), the FFFD is the gimmick that refuses to die. Look, we still have Pringles — which Matt, once he gets the power, can make shoot out of the can in an arc into his mouth — so why not movies about people lugging their candid cameras everywhere? This genre tradition spins backward from The Devil Inside, District 9 and the Paranormal Activity franchise to The Blair Witch Project and, decades before, to the mega-lurid Italian atrocity films Cannibal Holocaust and Addio Zio Tom (Goodbye Uncle Tom).
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Wearing my graybeard of derision for a moment, I could say that FFFD speaks to the narcissistic need for the world’s young to immortalize every activity on camera, each idle thought on Twitter. But the format also offers an elemental challenge to filmmakers: to tell a story through a single visual viewpoint. That goes back ages too; Robert Montgomery used it as the star and director of the 1947 Lady in the Lake, with a subjective camera that saw only what detective Philip Marlowe saw — including himself, occasionally, in a mirror. Montgomery was putting a movie spin on a literary technique that spans a half-millennium: the epistolary novel, in which the narrative was revealed through letters and other documents. (Quick Top 10 Epistolary Novels: Letters of a Portuguese Nun, Pamela, Les Liaisons dangereuses, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Moonstone, Herzog, The Color Purple and John Barth’s Letters.) For centuries, people communicated by writing letters; now they do so with emails and iPhones. The FFFD is the epistolary novel of the texting teen.
Chronicle‘s script, by Max Landis (the 26-year-old son of An American Werewolf in London director John Landis), eases into the horror. When the three guys get their tele-mojo on, they begin by playing with the power like kids in a sandbox. Andrew can assemble a Lego space station just by concentrating his Force. At the supermarket, they send a shopping cart skirting down the aisle. In the parking lot, they brain-valet a car from one parking space to another as the car’s confounded owner searches for it. At the school’s talent show, Andrew is s sensation when he performs mind-bending card tricks. And, glory be, the boys can will themselves to fly; they soar through the clouds and (in the movie’s neatest scary moment) narrowly avoid getting creamed by a passing jet, like a trio of geese.
Matt, the sensible one, articulates three rules for Flight Club: Don’t use the gift on living things, or in anger or in public. But Andrew, already close to the edge, decides that with great power comes great vengeance; in X-Men: First Class terms, he’s Magneto to Matt’s Xavier. There’s no more dangerous weapon than a troubled teen with telekinetic superpowers. Recall the protagonist of one more epistolary novel: Carrie. She was Stephen King’s metaphor for the volcanic physical and emotional changes wrought by puberty in every kid, and how they can explode into crimson disaster.
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Andrew also becomes a figure of deranged majesty, especially as played by DeHaan, an actor with his own unique and weird gifts, who made a memorably creepy impression as a young patient on In Treatment. (Mia Wasikowska played a similar role in an earlier season of the HBO series.) Looking like the young Leonardo DiCaprio crossed with Mick Jagger, DeHaan exudes a sleepy, slightly depraved charm. The characters he plays seem capable of any transgression, and as Andrew he dives into madness and tries to take the world down with him.
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The obvious liability of an FFFD is the requirement that the main character lug a camera everywhere, like Sisyphus with his damned rock, no matter how mortal the peril. The convention turns Chronicle sillier than it needs to be at times, as when Matt and Steve are trying to save a man’s life and Andrew can’t help because he’s filming. Things will be so much simpler when someone markets a camera that can be inserted in the customer’s forehead — the iBrain.
The movie does offer two innovations in the form. First, Andrew can make his camera levitate, giving moviegoers an occasional God’s-eye view of the action. And it happens that Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), a school friend of Matt’s, is also a compulsive videographer; when Matt visits her, we see her reflected in a mirror as she talks to him.
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Alas, she proves a minor character, and her camera doesn’t figure important in the story, as Andrew and Matt climactically reprise the two-man air battle from the end of the first Iron Man movie. Landis and Trank — preoccupied with aping and synthesizing other films into an ultimately ordinary one of their own — don’t exploit the opportunities they created with their second camera. It’s as if Edison thought his light bulb had no other function but to inspire jokes about how many people it took to screw it in.