If the average superhero movie is all about how with great power comes great responsibility, Chronicle reminds us that it also comes with great temptation. Indeed, to even call Josh Trank’s film a superhero movie seems wrong: Rather, it’s about what the average teenage boy might actually do with superpowers — and there is very little heroism or villainy on display here. Chronicle’s very lack of scope is its strength.
The plot is admirably bare-bones: Much bullied-upon Andrew (In Treatment’s Dane DeHaan), his smart and popular cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and their boisterous, extremely outgoing friend Steve (Michael B. Jordan, from Friday Night Lights and The Wire) discover a mysterious crater outside a party and, after touching some weird crystalline alien thingamabob, gain telekenetic powers. (We never see or hear from this weird crystalline alien thingamabob again. This is a good thing.) Our heroes then groove on their newfound powers for what seems like an obscenely long time: magically hiking up girls’ skirts, rearranging cars at the parking lot, tormenting unsuspecting shoppers at the grocery store, totally blowing everybody’s minds at the school talent show. They also discover that their powers are growing, and that they can do more than just move stuff with their minds — they can actually lift themselves off the ground, zoom through the skies, and (of course) do horrible things like pull people’s teeth out of their skulls.
For much of the film, our heroes’ obstacles are incidental, temporary: They go overboard with a car on the road and send it into a lake, precipitating a mini-rescue, and they nearly get sideswiped by a jet that flies too close to them while they’re flying around. Occasional nosebleeds might seem to presage some kind of Cronenbergian transformation, but no, the real trouble here comes from within: Andrew, bullied at school by the usual jerks and beaten at home by an abusive father (Michael Kelly), starts to get creative with his tormentors and enjoys it a bit too much. Pure wish fulfillment, it turns out, can go a little too far. When Matt tries to set down some rules for how they should use their powers, Andrew doesn’t seem too into the idea.
Wounded, tragic Andrew is our audience surrogate, recording everything with his camera. (When he discovers that he can make it float, it’s a clever way to both avoid the more egregious aspects of the shaky-cam style and explain away the device’s painful ubiquity.) The film may not be subtle about telegraphing the fact that Andrew is a monster in the making, but it also comes most alive when he’s getting back at the world: There, but for the grace of gravity, go we. An entire city may get totaled by the end, but Chronicle maintains a kind of austere, provincial integrity. In the end, it’s just a movie about the joys and dangers of finally having some power over our fate.