Josh Trank and Max Landis are not well known, but their handmade movie is a hit. Over Super Bowl weekend, Chronicle topped the box office in the U.S. and Canada and was No. 1 internationally. In this 83-minute feature film, director Josh Trank, and screenwriter Max Landis, show that superhero movies do not need to be cheesy and that they understand today’s do-it-yourself blogging generation. They keep it real – really. The film plays with the found footage genre but breaks its rules as Trank and Landis find ways to free the camera from human hands.
While choppy at first, the film’s documentary style allows the audience to make an intimate connection with Andrew, played by Dan DeHann of True Blood, who begins to film his life without any particular focus. The disjointed videos reveal that Andrew is a bullied social outcast at school and has a horrific home life – his mother is dying of cancer and his father is an abusive alcoholic. DeHaan is actually 24 but appears no older than 16 with his wispy blonde hair, pale blue eyes, paler skin and gangly frame. He uses this to his advantage and believably portrays Andrew as tortured, isolated, and only able to find comfort by making a record of his life for an intangible audience.
Chronicling oneself is a major theme in the film, but Trank and Landis’ message regarding chronicling is not very clear at first. For some, the camera is intrusive. Andrew gets bullied for filming at school and at a warehouse party. For others, as Andrew’s cousin Matt says, “It puts a barrier between you and other people.” Chronicling also gets you attention and perhaps that was what Andrew was searching for. While filming at the warehouse party, Andrew becomes enlisted by Steve – played by Michael Jordan of Friday Night Lights – to film an excursion into an underground tunnel. Andrew, Matt and Steve venture down and blackout after being knocked out by an unexplained force. After waking up the three begin to develop telekinetic powers.
The chronicling now shifts from Andrew and focuses on all three teenagers and the film is no longer choppy as it hits its stride. The audience sees the powers and friendship grow as the trio play pranks, repel energy – which effectively makes them impenetrable, learn to fly, and reach a utopian state of happiness in the closeness of their friendship. What is surprising is that none of this seems contrived. Trank doesn’t add a soundtrack to manipulate the audience’s emotions. He simply lets you enjoy these moments as if you were also gaining powers.
The honeymoon, however, cannot last forever. The chronicling has made them lose a connection with the real world. Steve attempts to make Andrew popular and it backfires and more abuse from his father begins to develop into a deadly psychosis within Andrew. Chronicling becomes a way for Andrew to explore his dark emotions. He telekinetically rips a spider into shreds, rips teeth out of a bully’s mouth, and crushes a car like he is crushing a paper ball. When Matt asks to speak to Andrew without the camera, Andrew refuses and flees. In mere minutes, Andrew has become a villain and Steve and Matt must grow-up and become heroes or crumble beneath Andrew’s wrath.
Through all of this the cinematography and editing is superb. Trank and Landis manage to free the camera from Andrew’s hands by allowing him to telepathically carry the camera while functioning independently. The found footage film quickly starts to look like a regular movie. The last moments of the film are a tour-de-force. You watch from news helicopters, news stations, handheld cameras, video cameras, security cameras and more. Trank is able to show the audience that 100-million-dollars worth of CGI will never be as good as these well-choreographed, physical stunts.
The message of the film, however, is a tragic one. Chronicling doesn’t help Andrew overcome his reality; it only deludes him toward destruction. Trank and Landis, however, don’t trivialize their character. The found footage has let the audience really understand Andrew as a person. While he may be evil, we understand how he got there and cannot think of losing him without feeling that we are losing a friend.
Trank and Landis have done well with this super hero movie because the story of the human beings is just as important as the superpowers they possess. Lucky for them, Hollywood is listening. Trank’s name has already been rumored as a frontrunner for the next Fantastic Four and Landis’ Good Time Gang is in pre-production and will star Jonah Hill, Mark Wahlberg, and Daniel Newman. Good work boys.
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