What if a few teenagers suddenly got superpowers? Not virtuous and heroic teens raised in loving homes like Peter Parker, but average irrational teens that drive recklessly at lunch, get drunk at parties, will do anything on a dare, and are still trying to figure out who they are? This is the premise of Chronicle, a superhero (supervillain?) film that achieves an impressive scale on a moderate budget, all while telling a surprisingly gripping and character-driven story.
Three adolescents stumble upon a mysterious sinkhole which endows them with telekinetic abilities. The boys seem to fit one-dimensional stereotypes initially: the popular jock (Michael B. Jordan, Red Tails) the faux-intellectual (Alex Russell), and the tortured loner (Dane DeHaan, Lincoln). However, latent personality characteristics come to the surface when each are given too much power too soon. The arrogant bookworm displays humility and eventual heroism (sadly, Russell is a bit bland here and struggles with intense emotion). The jock surpasses his initial self-assured swagger, growing into someone who cares deeply about his unlikely friends.
The standout performance by far comes from DeHaan, whose troubled teen is torn between his better nature (exemplified by his good-hearted but cancer-stricken mother) and his personal demons (brought on by an abusive father). DeHaan nails the multiple layers of the character, making his spiral from conflicted, but decent, teen to narcissistic and destructive villain utterly gripping. While I like the Star Wars prequels, warts and all, screenwriter Max Landis and director Josh Trank give us a far more resonant “hero's downfall” in one film than George Lucas mustered in three.
Speaking of Trank, this first-time director makes a major splash here, juggling multiple characters, a compelling story, and impressive action scenes with flair. He largely succeeds in pulling off credible visual effects on a low budget ($15 million, small change for a film of this scope), although occasionally they do seem a tad fake. Trank also displays a strong creativity in his use of the “found footage” format, intersplicing the boys' footage with feed from security cameras, police video, camera phones, and video shot by an attractive female student who crosses the boys' paths occasionally as she creates her video blog.
As with most films of this genre, one has to suspend disbelief (the shots are a little too perfect, the camera wouldn't still be running after certain events, etc). Also, as the boys' mortality (they may be able to move things with their minds, but their bodies are still vulnerable) adds an element of real danger, it's slightly disconcerting that the finale turns a bit away from the “realism.” No matter; these are minor complaints and Chronicle injects such daring new life into the superhero genre that it rises above them.
CONTENT OVERVIEW:Chronicle is a strong PG-13. It has one raised middle finger and consistent moderate profanity. There are a few sexual jokes from teens. One scene shows a teenage girl running away disgusted from a bedroom she'd entered with a teenage boy; she's got goo in her hair and we see him with goo on his jacket (it's later revealed to be vomit, but in the moment that's unclear). Adolescents drink alcohol. Early on the teens use their superpowers for pranks and slapstick violence, but later one of them uses them to harm others, beating up individuals, electrocuting one, yanking another's teeth out (with some blood), and throwing police officers and innocent civilians through the air. A father is verbally and physically abusive to his teenage son in several scenes.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: Overzealous and rigid application of a “survival of the fittest” mentality can lead to the complete dismissal of individual morality and compassion. Sometimes terribly cruel people start out decent; it is therefore important to turn no one away, but to welcome everyone with love and nurture the best in them.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.