“Take it down a notch, Seacrest.” So says Chris (Virginia Gardner), behind the camera that’s focused on her brother David (Jonny Weston) at the start of Project Almanac. The fact that you don’t see her right away, on top of his cocky-nerdy self-performance, sets up what’s coming. Technically, he’s selling himself to MIT in a video demonstration of his latest experiment, concerning a drone he can manipulate from glowing sensors on his fingers.
Before you can say, “Chronicle“, Project Almanac suggests that such super-seeming powers, as cool as they might seem, are never quite within the young genius’ control. Neither is that self-performance, remarked by Chris even as David proceeds to thrill himself with the show, attended by his supporting cast: Chris, David’s classmates, and fellow geekboys Adam (Allen Evangelista) and Quinn (Sam Lerner). David’s a whiz, his team agrees, so they’re willing to go along working on schematics and soldering chips, setting in motion the adventure that will become David’s character arc.
That arc features precisely no surprises. David’s a decent kid with a difficult background, which means Chris shares it (even though her experiences, good and bad, are generally left off-screen.) Their mom (Amy Landecker) is headed out to job interviews in almost every scene where she appears; their dad (Gary Weeks) is dead in a pre-film car wreck, though he shows up in home video (David’s seventh birthday party, the Last Time He Saw His Father). Brother and sister, although in Project Almanac it’s mostly brother, mourn his loss. This predictable frame extends to their shared sense of alienation at high school: in the cafeteria and hallways, the four sit apart from others, contriving the film’s titular project.
That project derives from David’s investment in his dead dad, sparked when he starts looking at the birthday party video and spots himself in it, himself as he is now, at age 17, reflected in a mirror. This leads to an investigation and lo, the discovery of dead dad’s plans for a time travel machine.
Ah yes, the time travel machine. As one might anticipate, this seeming plot focus is really just the trick by which Project Almanac gets at the tribulations embodied and endured by young “Seacrest”. David never does quite take it down a notch. His self-interest leads him to make some wrong decisions and to disregard the rules he and his friends set as to who travels when and how, as well as to what ends. He confronts a series of crises, more moral-adjacent than actually moral, beginning with his desperation to impress the prettiest girl in class, Jessie (Sofia Black-D’Elia). She happens onto the group’s early experimenting when David decides to use her car battery to power it. He makes this decision unilaterally, without her permission, but because she’s in place to serve as his love interest who becomes a crisis, well, she’s only impressed by his arrogance — or, rather, his “brilliance”.
Jessie’s entrance into the action theoretically means that Chris is no longer the only girl on site, but both tend to be framed in the same way, visually and emotionally. They share about 30 seconds discussing David’s interest in Jessie, they appear in frame repeatedly wearing short shorts and little tops, they encourage the boys’ “science” by observing and coming along, inviting your looks and the boys’ looks — which may not be precisely the same. This duo provides the “you’re-so-awesome” support they’re supposed to provide in a movie about high school boys.
That’s not to say it’s a movie without pleasures, including a couple of cute references to other, better versions of time travel (Bill & Ted, Groundhog Day) and the inevitable scene where they lay down their “rules” while scarfing pizza and beer in the basement, a setting of low angle close-ups that suggests just how casually they’re taking this frankly awesome enterprise. (Granted, they’ve assembled their machine with items loaded into a shopping cart in a home improvement center, along with cans of hydrogen, apparently the crucial element, stolen from the high school gym). The movie is most effective when it allows the kids to behave like kids, not quite grasping what they’re up to but imagining they know lots.
Project Almanac allows for this tension, between what they know and what you know, the future you can guess is coming and the past they want to relive and change ever so slightly. The film shows it in some gimmicky shots of scritches and static, sound dislocated and flashbacks reminding you of what you’ve just seen. In this, the movie doesn’t do a very good job of representing what the kids’ bodies might be feeling, but that’s of a piece with how poorly it represents their emotional experiences. As they increasingly slide into formula, the kids seem less focused, more enervated — and so do you.