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Review: Chronicle (2012)

I don’t know about the girls out there, but I know every teenage boy has wondered what it would be like to have super-powers. What would you really do with them? Lots of movies play with that theme, but I’d argue that none is as successful at it as Chronicle.

You know why it’s successful? Because (despite what you see in the trailer) the movie isn’t really about super-powers. It’s about these kids, their friendship, and their lives. In fact, it’s really just about one kid. The fact that he attains these powers is used to put the focus on his feelings, his hopes, and his dreams of being accepted and having friends. The movie is smart about having a slow ramp-up into the powers. It spends most of its time on the relationship of the 3 main characters.

The movie is another “found footage” film, like Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. This type of film is supposed to bring you into the story more by giving you a first person view of events and very natural performances. There’s no score, no beautiful cinematography, no voice-overs. Everyone in the film is very aware of the camera and react to its presence. The focus is where it should be: on the story and the characters. This film is very well cast, with mostly unknown, but professional, actors in all the roles. Many of the actors have worked in TV or movie shorts, though the most recognizable is probably Michael Kelly as Andrew’s father, who has been a major character in both the short-lived Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior and currently Person of Interest (one of my favorite shows).

Let’s talk for a second about Michael Kelly in this role. He does an outstanding job. This is a character whose only function is to be “nasty drunk dad,” and could easily have come across as one-dimensional and nothing more than a motivator for Andrew’s behavior, or played for melodrama. There is absolutely no reason to see any humanity in this guy. From the start of the film I wrote him off as a standard one-note character, and I honestly think that’s how he was written. By the end of the film I actually empathized with the character – I still didn’t like him, but I totally saw his humanity, pain, and desperation underneath the anger. For only having maybe 5 minutes of total screen time, that is an amazing feat as far as I’m concerned. Well done, Mr. Kelly.

(In fact, even though there is no comparison (let me be perfectly clear on that) between his character and me, he actually made me wonder if I appear like that to my kids when I do get angry, even in some very small way. That is a thought that I did not expect to have as a result of this film.)

The other actors all do excellent jobs as well. I don’t mean to short-change them, but I think most of their stuff was on the page waiting for them.

The development of the powers is really tied to the personalities of the characters as well. They all gain the same abilities, but their facility with them and control of them is really tied in to who the characters are. Steve, running for class president, is open to them and uses his for fun and freedom; Matt, the philosopher, recognizes the danger and warily develops them more slowly; and Andrew, the unpopular troubled one, spends focused time learning how to finely control his in an effort to precisely control his world.

Eventually, of course, we do see the super-powers grow tremendously and there is a climactic battle, but this is a battle done right. This is very personal, despite the physical scope to which it grows. By this point in the movie the main character has left his camera behind and we see the battle take place via footage from the cameras that are around us every day: security cameras, dashboard cams on police cars, and personal cameras from tourists, as well as camera phones and tablet computers. But the focus never leaves the characters. One wants to end his own personal pain through violence and be left alone, and one wants to help him overcome his pain, protect him, and protect the people around him. The fight is epic, but never loses that these two characters, flawed though they are, truly care about each other. (To go all nerdy for a second, this is the character development that was missing from Revenge of the Sith… lost opportunities…)

On the downside, though it is a short film, clocking in at 80-some minutes, the beginning is slow and probably should have been edited a bit more. The couple next to me left about 10-15 minutes into the film, though I’m not sure if it’s because they were bored or the hand-held camera work annoyed them.

That’s something else I can praise about this film, actually. I usually hate the hand-held camera stuff, but in this movie, once Andrew learns how to make the camera hover we get a nice steadicam-ish style without losing the “home movie” quality. Very good move.

As far as recommending this movie… in the beginning it’s slow, and in the end it’s kind of depressing. It does an excellent job of appearing natural despite the extraordinary feats being performed. It also captures teen life very realistically (the fun, the stupid, and the dark sides). If that sounds even a little bit interesting to you, see this film. If you don’t like gritty depressing films, it’s probably not your thing. But if you avoid superhero movies because they’re unrealistic and lacking in true character development, do not let that stop you from seeing this. This movie stomps all over that perception.

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