I can't say the found-footage format of Chronicle was particularly impressive, but the rest of the film is a minor revelation. Imagine the X-Men without Professor X or, more accurately, what three teenage boys with superpowers might look like in the real world. Comic books have touched on the idea from time to time; Stan Lee, in particular, had his finger on that pulse and efforts like Alex Ross's Marvels pondered how four-color heroes would interact in a more complicated universe like ours. Chronicle takes the idea to its logical extremes, simply and sparsely but with heartfelt compassion.
The outlandish trappings of the genre are nowhere to be seen here. Only the grand macguffin smacks of the outlandish, and it's quickly dispatched once it does its job. It lies in a hole in the woods near Seattle: a glowing organic meteorite tempting a trio of precocious teens to give it a peek. Soon thereafter, they discover marvelous powers of telekinesis, which morph into a variety of delightful tricks. With a little practice, they can deflect objects away from them – making them effectively invulnerable – and push themselves off the ground to fly. The group runs the gamut of typical teen types. Steve (Michael B. Jordan) is handsome and popular, running for class president when he's not throwing touchdowns; Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is shy and bullied, with a dying mother and an abusive father who blames him for their wreck of a life; and Andrew's cousin Matt (Alex Russell) lies somewhere between them, with an affected coolness hiding ordinary insecurities.
They react to their powers the same way they might react to unrestricted access to hand grenades: at first with flushed excitement and then with a growing sense of how dangerous they truly are. Their problems don't vanish, of course, and when the universe starts pushing against the trio, the boys push back with disastrous results. Some of it we see coming from miles away; other parts come at us from out of the blue. But every piece follows the logic of the scenario, as well as the characters' emotional truths which director Josh Trank places in the forefront of every scene. We feel their fear and their rage, and understand its sources, as well as the bond they feel at being the only ones in the world to share these abilities. They lash out the way any teenagers would, but also grapple with the moral implications of their abilities… or in the film's most chilling scenes, ignore them to the peril of all.
The slow development peels back the essence of the superhero archetype; the resulting insight doesn't entirely break new ground, but certainly presents it in a new and interesting way. Trank uses the slow development of their powers to keep the plot in line. Their telekinesis functions like a muscle that they need to exercise in order to strengthen; that allows them to experiment, revel, make mistakes and ultimately lose control as their turbulent emotions start to get the better of them. You've never seen an origins story quite like this and its relatively simple structure belies the complexities lurking just below the surface.
The found footage format constitutes Chronicle's only real weakness. Trank has to perform a number of technical acrobatics in order to justify what we're seeing, and it doesn't always make sense from a logical perspective. The film also stumbles a bit when it trundles out the tired old concept of post-millennial youngsters documenting themselves. We've heard it before, and the image of characters crushing vehicles with their minds doesn't bring anything fresh or innovative to the equation. On the other hand, it probably keeps the budget down, and we're all so accustomed to the visual language on display that we soon put it in the back of our minds.
The rest of the film serves as a lovely refresher amid the behemoths of comic-dom rampaging across our movie screens every summer. It couldn't survive placed side-by-side with them, but here in the relative quiet of February, it helps place those bigger films in perspective. The best of them never forget what Chronicle offers; the worst try to pretend it doesn't exist. But without the bombast and special effects, we can appreciate its message bereft of distractions to pull us away. We've heard it before, but rarely as clearly as we do here: a feature that puts many of Chronicle's so-called betters to shame.