Feb. 16, 2012
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
A little Prometheus, a smidgen of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and a sociologically keen helping of teen angst mark “Chronicle,” Josh Trank’s auspicious entrée into the ranks of feature film directors. A script co-written with Max Landis, son of John Landis (“Trading Places,” 1983), doesn’t hurt, while also proving that the wit doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Lest curmudgeonly detractors of the current movie scene doubt the baton of artistic cinema is being properly passed, this breakout flourish by the young filmmaker and his primarily ingénue cast attests otherwise. A blend of the tried and true, a good feeling for where goest the art and a variation on the found footage ploy imbues a refreshing vibe.
It’s the ultimate teen fantasy, to gain superpowers and rise high above any concerns of peer pressure. The phenomenon, which visits a trio of boys who just happen to stumble upon an eerie cave in the woods, becomes especially significant and steeped in allegorical premonition as it affects sad Andrew Detmer, beaten at home and bullied at school.
Andrew, emotively portrayed by Dane DeHaan, can’t even find solace in his own room. The cries from his hopelessly ill mother trying to catch her breath only underscore his powerlessness. Adding terror to injury, his drunken lout of a miserable father (Michael Kelly) invades his space to smack and rebuke him with the regularity of Old Faithful.
Well, at least he has one friend, cousin Matt (Alex Russell), his BMOC antithesis who tries to get the introvert to join the human race. And thus it comes to pass that, at a party, he sways Andrew to attend. The très popular Steve Montgomery, played by Michael B. Jordan, also shares in their life-changing discovery and a troika of camaraderie is formed.
Adding to the compendium of ways our superheroes have attained their extraordinary powers, this introduces a rather realistic touch. The realization of newfound facility, acumen and strength is done with about as much credibility as can be expected, as are the collective and individual reactions. “Whoa, careful now,” we say. But hey, they’re kids.
Matt, quickly aware of what potentially dangerous clout they possess, especially after Andrew deals quite injudiciously with a brazen road hog, is big on rules. Steve’s OK with that. But Andrew, perhaps because of all his pent up anxiety, rails against it a tad. In the meantime, it’s a whole lot of fun. Andrew at the school talent show is a genuine hoot.
P.S. — They learn they can fly, and because, again, they’re kids, they play football in the sky. No one’s thinking maybe they can cure cancer or at least figure out a way to get the more reactionary members of Congress to give a darn about the commonweal. So, for the time being, it’s stunts, magic tricks and just plain mirth. Alas, we know what must come.
The storytelling style is established at the outset, when the relentlessly put-upon Andrew buys a camera and announces he will henceforth film everything. We figure it’s a form of self-preservation. Yet, through it, Trank creates a faux-unsentimental rawness to convey his ultimately benevolent saga, astutely synthesizing several voguish modes of narration.
The cinematic witness to the persecution soon becomes the so-called objective, 21st century minstrel and chronicler of the desperate truth. By mixing the handheld footage with traditional picture gathering, and deciding when and when not to turn off Andrew’s emotionless spectator, director Trank realizes an engaging modus operandi for his fable.
Watching, in time quite breathlessly, we hope that this isn’t going to turn into a morality play — that the boys will, in the eleventh hour of their discovery and experimentation, slyly avoid the hubris just waiting in the wings to have its way. The drama is soon joined by an action component, and woven together with a mini-treatise on teen mores and folkways.
Alex Russell is smartly evocative as cool guy Matt Garetty, who, recognizing that popularity is overrated, and perhaps partly in atonement for past indiscretions, opts to play guardian angel to his cousin Andrew. Mr. Jordan is solid as Steve Montgomery, a very likeable chap who sees a career in politics as the logical culmination of his talents.
But the performance that wins a gold star is Dane DeHaan’s poster boy for the bullied masses (those poor kids just trying to have a normal life, if only society’s dysfunctional predators would let them). By dressing the searing injustice Andrew embodies in fantasy’s clothing, Mr. Trank’s “Chronicle” does a super job of imparting its humanistic message.
“Chronicle,” rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation release directed by Josh Trank and stars Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael Jordan, and Ashley Hinshaw. Running time: 84 minutes