In "Chronicle," the aquarium-eyed Dane DeHaan plays a high-school outcast named Andrew, whose life sucks even by high-school standards. His mother's dying of something slow and terrible, his father is a violent drunk, girls rightly think he's weird and bullies like to yank on his head. His life reads as a prelude to a school shooting until his cheerfully philosophical cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and a chipper BMOC named Steve (Michael B. Jordan) coax him away from a party to a strange sinkhole in the Washington woods. The three boys follow some odd noises, spelunk into the crevasse and find a glowing crystalline mass that gives them nosebleeds. Next thing you know, the boys are able to control small objects with their minds — baseballs, Legos — and work their way up to veritable black-belts in telekinesis, and Andrew's life goes from bad to fun to something else entirely.
With every chance to make a teen-hero flick, Josh Trank, directing his first feature and sharing the writing credits with Max Landis, also in his first feature, comes up with a moody, memorable film that takes chances without cutting corners — rarities both inside these genres. It's not often that an action movie can coexist with a teen drama without one (or both) getting stiffed. "Chronicle" announces very early that its stakes are going to be high, and to its credit, it follows through, applying the kind of effects usually reserved for superhero movies to a story without any defined heroes. The result respects teen-agers by showing us just how twisted their lives really can be.
Even in its cinematography "Chronicle" skirts pitfalls. From the opening scene, shot from a camera that stares into a mirror on Andrew's bedroom door, "Chronicle" is ostensibly shot from either a handheld camera, or a news camera, or a security camera, or a cell phone camera — the sort of first-person perspective best used, like chili flakes, in pinches. Andrew's strange enough for the trope to seem at least somewhat natural early. Once he takes to holding the camera telekinetically, "Chronicle" goes places none of its Steadicam ancestors could reach.
As with everything in high school, the boys' astonishing powers could come neither at a better nor a worse time. The boys find kinship in the shared secret, and claim a bit of social advantage (read: impressing girls) when the chance arises. But at the same time Andrew is acquainting himself with his new gifts — his grasp of the new ability is both the strongest and the most graceful — he's fighting through the anger that bullies and his father and his mother's illness have packed into him over the years. We've seen these themes explored before in the likes of the "X-Men" franchise — the disaffection and tempestuousness that come with being young and stricken with an unexplained power. "Chronicle" takes them further by ditching comic-book cliches and instead treating the story with a degree of realism and care uncommon among movies made for teen-agers. Nearly every scene is tinged (if not altogether soaked) with a stormy sensibility. For all the exploration the boys do, we never hear them utter the words "hero." They have no interest in living out that story, and bless 'em, neither do Trank and Landis. Darkness rarely feels this refreshing.