Dir. Josh Trank. USA., UK. 2012.

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Inside out...

In Chronicle, presented in blithely inconsistent faux-video ("found footage") documentary mode, three high school boys jump into a hole in the ground, Lewis Carroll style, and by touching something down there instantly acquire powers of teleportation that they gradually learn how to use to devastating effect. Teenage testosterone plus super powers equals big trouble, of course. The movie ends in an orgy of excessive CGI -- the finale resembles the least interesting parts of X-Men: First Class -- but it manages to transcend its sci-fi plus coming of age plus superhero genre mix long enough to get across not only a few fresh thrills but some stimulating ideas. This movie works because it combines physicality with disturbing emotion, all the while circling the Seattle Space Needle (actually shot in South Africa, like District 9 but with less than half the budget).

The main boy, Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) has both a mom dying at home and a physically abusive, raging alcoholic father, and he he has been friendless and alone and angry up to now. So it's immediately risky when Andrew turns out to be both the most skillful at using the powers and the most likely to use them thoughtlessly. His inside gets turned outside on a more and more disastrous scale and it's ultimately a horrible, explosive mess. One strength of the movie is that, though it eventually gives way to mayhem, it never loses sight of Andrew's family conflicts, his warped lack of a social sense, the power's danger because of the painful emotions inside, and the broken desire of Matt and Andrew for mutual friendship and peace.

Andrew remains essentially alone but the giddy excitement includes sudden bonding. His cousin and ride to school, Matt (Alex Russell) and the popular student leader Steve (Michael B. Jordan) are the ones who take Andrew along to explore the hole, with his camera, since he's begun videoing everything. Their unexpected and unique power makes them literal blood brothers: carrying out an act of mentally willed teleportation makes their noses bleed and and so does sensing that another one of the three is in trouble. But feeling a pal's trouble and being able to help are two different things. Ultimately this story is not only about the abuse of power in immature hands but also the limits of young male bonding -- the inability of friendship alone to heal someone who's truly disturbed.

Chronicle doesn't generalize or preach. But it throws out some overt references to sophisticated ideas through Andrew's twisted sensibility and Matt's interest in philosophy. Driving along in his car while Andrew compulsively films him, Matt tosses him references to Jung and Schopenhauer and asks him if he's heard of Plato's allegory of the cave. He sees their awesome responsibility, insists they must have a set of rules, and accuses Andrew of "hubris." It goes beyond that. When Andrew goes really out of control he embraces the idea of becoming a Nietzschean Übermensch.

We don't know the ages of these dudes, and they don't seem to match very well, but Dane DeHaan is the most youthful and volatile and has the explosive sensitivity for the role; he's been compared to the young DiCaprio. He has that poetic gawky wildeyed stringy look, and he's a good actor, though his is no Gilbert Grape virtuoso display. Unfortunately the screenplay doesn't show us what kind of nerdy young dude he was, exactly, before the hole, except that his home life was and is awful and school wasn't good either.

The boys develop their skills in a nice gradual progression, though it soon gets out of hand. They start with making little things jump up, then assemble Lego pieces without touching them: already Andrew is far better at this. They gravitate next to playful but mean pranks: they make a big teddy bear float down and scare a little girl at a toy store. Finally a redneck is aggressively tailgating them on a highway and Andrew goes way over the line for the first time: he drives the other car off the road, through a railing and into a lake, and puts the driver in the hospital. The trouble is their powers are increasing by leaps and bounds along with their confidence in using them. Much more and much worse eventually follows and there's hurt and death and general destruction.

A lot has been said about Chronicle's pop references and sources and about the self consciousness of the found footage technique. Reviewers have gone out of their way to list other faux doc movies, Blair Witch, Cloverfield, Troll Hunter, The Devil Inside, the Paranormal Activity series, District 9. This movie has been commended for dispensing early with Andrew's "consumer level" video camera (it gets buried in the hole and Steve gets him a good one) and not bothering to be consistent when another point of view has to be fitted in (also including a young woman filming everything she sees for her blog) --but this really has been common to many of these movies. Reviewers have talked about the tradition of "single point of view" presentations, even going back to the (then quite original, and not faux-documentary) Forties Lady of the Lake. What the use of "found footage" and POV-focus exactly has to do with epistolary novels is hard to say, but those have been brought in too, from Pamela through The Color Purple and beyond. All this talk at this point indicates something self-conscious and original about this variation on the themes and methods that it's hard to put your finger on, even though some viewers see nothing new and just think this is taking X-Men and debasing it with a "pasty-faced" nerd at the helm. (What did they say about Donny Darko?) Anyway, the allusions never stop, including the flaming hospital room in the Swedish Let the Right One In. And Carrie, The Fury, Stand by Me; it goes on and on.

First-time director Josh Trank, whose script cohort and main writer Max Landis' being the son of genre and pop giant John Landis may have helped them get a (barely) sufficient budget to cover all the effects, has absorbed all the source material and made it his own. As Nabokov wrote in connection with the very allusive but very unique Lolita, he takes "the implied associations and traditions--which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way."

There is almost no end to the echoes. The whole thing can't help but bring back memories of Donny Darko. But Jake Gyllenhaal's character had a brooding somberness, a charismatic adolescent inwardness that Andrew lacks, as he lacks palpably individualized school and family settings or much sense of a distinctive world beyond high school hallway lockers (never a classroom or gym or faculty meeting or student advisor), parking lots, a poorly individualized party, vaguely derivative. The boys learn to fly (they realize they can teleport themselves as well as objects and others) and the roaring aerial sequences recall Point Break's skydiving (but also an Iron Man battle). Cloverfield may be crap (if almost nonstop exciting crap) but it lends Chronicle its corny repartee between videographers and cohorts.

That Trank and Landis absorb and regurgitate all these sources and still keep their inside-out focus on the nightmare of a messed-up teenager with world class destructive powers and a desperate, disappointed need for love makes Chronicle some kind of thrill to watch, even though it seriously lets you down at the end, quickly losing most of its own power to enchant, as if it was all just a big exciting adolescent wet dream and we awake, and find it not truth. And perhaps, in the case of those jaded genre hounds who hate this movie, just super annoying.

Chris Knipp

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Chris Knipp

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