Part of the allure of Chronicle, directed by Josh Trank, a movie in which we feel we’ve seen the characters and plot threads before, is that the film embraces a gritty realism through found-footage-style filming, and for the most part, it is successful.

Of course, the movie did feel painfully familiar at first, when we are introduced to the main character, Andrew Detmer (Dane Dehaan), who quickly develops an obsession with constantly filming everything going on around him. He is our typical troubled teenager, with a mother who is dying and a father who is drunk and abusive. Andrew is portrayed as a social recluse who is bullied on a daily basis. He’s only able to count his philosophically minded cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), as a friend. Then, on a fateful party night, Andrew, Matt and his friend Stephen (Michael B. Jordan) venture into a cave in the woods and emerge with telekinetic powers.

And that’s the thing–getting unfathomable superpowers is just that simple. The film never attempts to give an explanation of how that cave gave them those gifts. It is shown that even the main characters have no idea what happened when an attempt at a second entrance into the cave is barred by the local sheriffs, always handy for closing off plot ends. Despite this, the film takes the premise and runs with it. Or rather, walks with it. Unlike most instances of newfound powers in film (look no further than Captain America: The First Avenger, where no sooner than he get his powers does he go out and wreck a submarine), part of the plot in Chronicle is how they gradually train their gifts as if they are “muscles,” easing us into the world of the characters and adding a feeling of plausibility to it all. Even so, at the end, we are left with a feeling of being in the dark. All in all, this aura of mystery or vagueness is for the best. Chronicle was never about superpower origins, but rather about the effects they can have on less than ideal subjects.

“Less than ideal” perfectly encompasses the players in this story. The filmmakers must have known what they were doing when they made the character of Matt interested in philosophy, as no doubt one of the many phrases which comes to mind is “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” At a point, you have to wonder if they are trying to make a statement by showing us what happens when the typical troubled teen in a dysfunctional home is empowered. We see the three of them experiment with their powers, going from moving tennis balls, to moving carts, to pranking shoppers, and so forth. Andrew is clearly the most powerful of the three, and he in particular becomes more and more reckless and liberal with the use of his powers, until we get to the point when he calls himself the “apex predator.”

Usually filming a movie in found-footage style is more gimmick than substance, but this is an instance where it is a real part of the storyline. Andrew is heckled to no end about his insistence on bringing his camera everywhere and that quirk adds to our perception of him as an outcast teenager. It also keeps the audience at the same pace as the characters so we know just as little about what is happening to them as they do. Don’t worry though, you still get the full benefit of multiple angles as Andrew figures out how to levitate his camera using his powers. The found-footage also enhances the visuals of the film; the special effects achieved a gritty and realistic look, something that wouldn’t have been possible with the crystal clarity of high definition. In a movie that cost only a fraction of other blockbusters, the style is doubly effective.

The acting is wonderful in this film, and it’s a shocker that the actors are virtual unknowns (you might recognize Michael Kelly from Dawn of the Dead, but that’s about it). So seamless are the actors’ performances that the film is at once astonishing, engrossing and frightening.

Chronicle is a captivating experience even if the story and characterizations can feel a bit stale. It doesn’t matter–in this day and age it is refreshing to see that, even with a normal home camera and inexpensive effects, good acting and execution trump all.

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