by Glenn Lovell
We always knew that Clark Kent had trouble fitting in as a kid in Smallville, but the Boy of Steel’s problems were minor next to Andrew Detmer’s in this week’s “Chronicle,” a small find of a movie that reminds us that superpowers are swell but they can take you only so far when battling a lousy self-image.
The feature directorial debut of talented newcomer Josh Trank, this mix of teen angst and Marvel Comics heroics stars young DiCaprio lookalike Dane DeHaan as Andrew, a Seattle senior juggling a miserable school life (he’s pigeonholed as geeky outsider) with an even worse home life (invalid mother; drunken, abusive father). Andrew documents his crummy existence with a new digital camera. “This is my school … This is my street.”
As today’s crop of You Tube auteurs will vouch, the world seen through a viewfinder is once removed, less real or threatening.
Trank, in the spirit of “Cloverfield,” uses this first-person POV to record several months in the lives of Andrew, his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and new friend Steve (Michael B. Jordan), a funny, charming extrovert ‒ everything Andrew isn’t. With the exception of reverse angle shots supplied by a pretty blogger (Ashley Hinshaw), Trank remains relatively faithful to the conceit: we see what Andrew’s camera sees, including a mysterious crater in the woods and first contact with a Kryptonite-like crystal that bestows, first, nose bleeds, then telekinetic powers … then bouts of megalomania during which Andrew takes sadistic pleasure in punishing school and neighborhood bullies.
The miracle of this little film ‒ easily the best thing I’ve seen so far this year ‒ is that it takes the X-Men formula and grounds it in the messy, blue-collar reality of Gus van Sant. As the trio use trial and (much) error to test their newfound powers, we sense what it would be like for an ordinary person to discover he can will toys and baseballs to move. Needless to say, it leaves Andrew and his friends giddy with excitement. But this is nothing compared to the moment they realize ‒ “Holy crap, dude!” ‒ that they can will themselves to fly.
Obviously a low-budget endeavor, “Chronicle” nevertheless boasts some exhilarating and inventive special effects. Among my favorite moments: a football game in the clouds that’s so much more believable than quidditch and a talent contest that’s every bit as satisfying as the one in “Napoleon Dynamite.” Trank and company only stub their toes in the homestretch, when one of the super-teens throws a tantrum and lays waste to downtown Seattle, including, of course, the iconic Space Needle. The spark-showering pyrotechnics are impressive, but they’re nothing we haven’t seen before in “Spider-man” and its ilk. The human (read psychological) cost of being able to mind-crush a car is what makes this film, not so much the sight of a car rising and imploding, though, you’re right, it sure looks cool.
CHRONICLE ✮✮✮1/2 With Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, Alex Russell. Directed by Josh Trank; scripted by Max Landis from a story by Trank and Landis. 83 min. PG-13 (for profanity, violence, sexual situations)