“I’m filming this,” announces Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his pawn-shop video camera aimed at the mirror on his bedroom door. On the other side, his father (Michael Kelly) bangs ominously, drunk again. “I bought a camera, and I’m filming everything from here on out.” His father bangs a few more times, the door shakes, and Drew stands back from the camera’s steady red light, pleased that he’s found a way to repel the monster, for a little while, anyway.
So begins Drew’s chronicle, in Chronicle. Beset by his dad’s abuse and also by the specter of his dying mother (Bo Petersen) — whom he records looking up at him from her bed, tubes in her nose and eyes phlegmy — the kid can’t catch a break. At his Seattle high school, he records himself eating lunch alone on the bleachers (one of the cheerleaders walks over to ask not to videotape their practice, because it’s “really creepy”) and assaulted by generic bullies (and yes, as it skids across the floor, the frame indicates Drew’s precariousness). Still, he believes his camera will help him control his own story, even when his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) invites him to a party and advises him to leave the camera at home.
This being yet another found-footage film, Drew brings it anyway (he likes the seeming protection it affords, the “barrier” it sets between him and everyone else), which means he can use it to record the event that will change his life forever: Matt and another classmate, Steve (Michael B. Jordan), enlist Drew to record their exploration of a hole in the ground. As they enter, Matt, who likes to name-drop regarding his readings, provides a frame: “Have you ever heard of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave?” he asks. His buddies don’t get it, but you do: they’re about to enter into another world, where shadows become real.
Their route to this allegory is magical sci-fi: underground, they find an assortment of portentously glowing rocks (“This is awesome!”), an abrupt cut to black, and a resurrection in a backyard — where they test a set of newfound superpowers. “We’ve got to document this,” they agree, as they proceed to throw rocks at each other.
The giggly delight these teenage boys take in inflicting and withstanding bits of bloody pain is soon overtaken by another discovery, when Drew wills a rock to stop mid-flight. No sooner are they practicing their telekinetic skills, floating Lego blocks and skipping rocks, moving cars and aiming a leaf blower up girls’ skirts, that they find they can also fly and, inevitably, cause trouble. Here they break off into different views of what their powers can mean: as Matt tries to set “rules,” like they all know from comic books and videogames, Drew, the angry abused kid, is inclined to take up another narrative code, seeking vengeance on those who’ve wronged him.
As the film’s primary camera belongs to Drew, we don’t see Steve when Drew’s not with him (this leaves Steve something of a cipher or maybe more accurately, a plot point). We do, however, see Matt in another frame, provided by his video-blogger girlfriend Casey (Ashley Hinshaw). The subplot of their relationship appears in her footage, an early step recorded when Matt appears at her front door, where she has her camera set up: “I just want to tell you something,” he says awkwardly, “I just want you to know I’m not who I was.” She’s skeptical, but, her camera reveals after he leaves, intrigued.
Matt’s shift into coupledom is sudden, for the film and for Drew, who’s predictably resentful. But Casey’s camera becomes crucial in the last act, when Drew’s lost interest in “filming everything.” Casey rides along with him when Matt heads out to confront Drew: as she doesn’t yet know about her boyfriend’s extracurricular activities (“I meant to tell you!”), her surprise provides a visual corollary for the big showdown, her frame careening as Matt and Drew start zipping around in the sky while s a crowd gathers on the sidewalk.
Here the film careens a bit as well, as the increasingly brutal contest between the cousins exploits the cool POV possibilities of the kids’ superpowers. On one hand, Chronicle offers an obvious moral lesson, showing the consequences of Drew’s abuses at home and at school. On the other hand, a less obvious focus has to do with its structure, or maybe, its potential, not quite realized structure.
As Drew tries to sort out his own story, to tell it with and to his camera (he’s fond of confessionals and diary-like observations, like so many newbie filmmakers before him), the movie pitches between that effort and its own, to make sure you don’t slide too far into the hole of his experience, so you can judge him. This pulling back from his view simplifies your job, as you don’t have to guess at which is shadow and which is real (even if what’s real here is mostly CGIed). But even as you’re reassured, you can’t help feeling that Chronicle has missed the point of the found-footage film — that the point of view is unstable and immersive, making you doubt what you see.