Revisiting ‘Chronicle’: The Perils and Power of Adolescence

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Chronicle is the story that almost never gets told. On their way to a high-school party, our protagonist’s older cousin Matt (Alex Russell) pleads with his reclusive cousin not to bring along the video camera that apparently functions as an extension of his limbs. “When we go tonight,” he implores, “maybe leave your camera at home?” Matt is a typical 18-year-old boy, preoccupied with appearing louche and cool — not unkind, but nevertheless willing to point out his cousin’s shortcomings. Our protagonist, Andrew (Dane DeHaan), declines: “I bought a camera and I’m filming everything from here out.” And so our story begins.

This interaction serves as a cunning treatise for the rest of the film, which is just as interested in the canon of superpower films as it is with playing witness to the casual cruelty and misendeavors of growing up as a boy in modern America. Based on a screenplay by Max Landis and realized in gritty cinematic shorthand by Josh Trank, the story follows three 17- and 18-year-old boys living in Seattle whose lives are irredeemably altered by one supernatural event.

Steve, played by Michael B. Jordan in a breakout role, is disarming and jocular. He has political aspirations and sharpens his interpersonal skills on his peers with deft charm. Matt is slightly more reserved, yet prone to the kind of lofty philosophical ramblings that adolescents often use to disguise insecurity. And then there’s Andrew, played with vulnerable ferocity by DeHaan in his breakout performance. Like those bestowed with superpowers that preceded him, his origins are lowly, if not downright tragic. His father is a belligerent and violent drunk, and his mother is terminally ill. He is easy prey both for his peers at school and at home, where his fragile sense of purpose and worth is eroded by his father’s outbursts. Unlike Bruce Wayne’s parentless tragedy or Peter Parker’s arachnidian defect, Andrew’s origin story is regrettably one not unfamiliar to many teenagers.

When the three boys discover a vast crater in the woods undulating with telekinetic energy, their lives change forever. They discover they can lift Lego with their mind and assemble Starships in their front rooms with boyish glee. They can lift the skirts of unsuspecting girls at school and levitate Pringles into their open mouths with grace. With great power comes great responsibility, and unsurprisingly, things soon begin to go wrong. Their powers increase: now, they are able to crunch cars in their fists like Wotsits. They swoop through the clouds at breakneck speed and rip the incisors out of a bully’s mouth as though plucking daisies. At the epicenter of this growing chaos is Andrew, whose slow-burning discontentment and feelings of isolation supply the emotional ammunition for his descent into violence and extremism. In this manner, Chronicle can be read as an analogy for the dangers of thwarted masculinity — and an unexpectedly prescient critique of the current incel/alt right-motivated violence that troubles America today. But more on that later.

Perhaps the most assertive thing about Chronicle is Trank’s choice to use the found footage style that popularized such films as The Blair Witch Project in 1999 and Cloverfield in 2008. Harnessed by indie filmmakers in the late 1990s, these found footage films sought to eschew the constraints — such as budget, logistics, and access to A-list talent — that often limit first-time filmmakers.

With a focus on multi-character ensembles and exposé-style narratives, it is interesting to consider how the raw aesthetic of well-loved thrillers like the Paranormal Activity franchise had their formal origins in the centuries-old epistolary form. Writer Andrew Keith Walker elaborates on this point, suggesting that “found footage takes the academic detective work of primary research and applies that model to filmmaking. It presents a faux primary source and guides the audience through a detective process.” Found footage films incorporate the audience into the narrative both emotionally (through our implication as witnesses) and visually (through the intimate camera POV). The result is both chilling and profound, providing a cinematic experience that is closer to reportage than to conventional modes of storytelling.

In Chronicle, the found footage style not only forces us to bear witness to the private moments in Andrew’s life — tending to his dying mother, lying in his bed listening to his dad’s inebriated rages, listlessly filming cheerleaders on the bleachers — but also functions as the very thing that gives our protagonist purpose. Where other found footage films have justified the ‘found’ element in terms of journalistic enquiry (Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, for example), artistic exploration (the young filmmakers in The Blair Witch Project), or purely to capture a good night out (Cloverfield), one gets the impression that Andrew’s documentation of the world around him is more vital altogether, instilling in it the significance, empathy, and purpose that he otherwise struggles to find. This is evident in an interaction between Steve and Andrew midway through the film: Steve asks him, “You don’t feel like [the camera is] a little weird? Like it puts a barrier between you and everyone else?”, to which Andrew responds, “Maybe I want a barrier.”

In an apparently apathetic world, Andrew’s flailing sense of self-worth is bolstered by his documentation of quotidian life. It is the ‘barrier’ which both protects him and distances him from those that prey on him. In this manner, the found footage style of Chronicle is analogous to the volatile and vulnerable condition of adolescence and its capacity for monstrous or unreliable retellings. It is no coincidence that when the camera is ultimately turned on Andrew at the height of his destruction, the audience is conditioned to see a monster and not a teenage boy, radicalized and insular.

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As previously mentioned, there is a disturbingly prescient vein running through the film which explores the dangers of volatile masculinity — especially in adolescence. In Landis’ screenplay, Andrew’s rages are accompanied by lightning storms and traffic accidents, his emotions taking on physical properties that are at once hyperbolic and familiar to many angsty teenagers. It is, however, internet research that sharpens the point of Andrew’s malice, representing a well-trodden and sinister descent into violent radicalization. After Steve’s tragic death, Andrew becomes distant even from Matt and directs his spurn toward the camera and, by extended logic, the audience too. When he talks about “evolution and natural selection” and “the Apex predator”, it is with the dull fervor of fundamentalism. Gone are the days of mischievous experimentation, the juvenile joy, the newfound bravado. He levitates a spider in front of him and explodes its limbs with sudden, horrific intensity. In these scenes, the floating camera becomes uncomfortably incriminated in Andrew’s deterioration, a helpless partner in crime.

This helplessness, and the attending nihilism that colors Andrew’s world, is a mainstay of found footage films. In Cloverfield, the group of New Yorkers we follow look on in horror as a behemoth of terror destroys their city. They are, quite literally, pawns in a great game. In Monsters, the couple are at the mercy of both the monsters that surround them and, more tellingly, the various military forces intended to protect them. Without the inherent authority of conventional filmmaking (establishing shots, tracking shots, etc.) to tell us what to believe or what to expect, the audience finds themselves as helpless as the protagonists. As a device, found footage is intrinsically reactive and all the more terrifying for it.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Chronicle is the inevitability of Andrew’s death. While Steve’s untimely demise is designed to shock the audience with its randomness, there is a haunting sense throughout the film that Andrew is doomed. Even at the peak of his newfound power, when his cousin tells him, “Things are gonna get so much better for you, I really feel that,” it feels improbable that Andrew will be able to escape from the juggernauts of cruelty, bad luck, and self-doubt that pile atop him. At the nadir of his self-esteem, as helicopters spin around him and spotlights pick out his small body, his desperate cousin tells him, “Andrew, you’re not alone up here,” but we already know that in many ways, he is. Trank’s is a film for the modern ages, an inexorable tragedy that speaks to the manifold ways young men are both isolated and indoctrinated. Though its form may be hyperbolic and fantastical, the emotions that anchor it are terrifyingly tangible and tap into a modern zeitgeist wherein pain becomes spectacle and a fall from grace is valuable cultural currency.

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In early August this year, various entertainment platforms announced a sequel to Trank’s original film featuring an all-female cast. This time around, Trank will be not behind the camera (the main one, that is), having expressed both disdain for the concept of a sequel and disgust at original screenwriter Max Landis’ multiple sexual assault allegations. Landis’ fall from grace is not only a damning indictment of an industry that repeatedly aids and abets violent men but also a rather chilling parallel to the volatile and unchecked versions of masculinity that consume Andrew in Chronicle. One must hope that the new film will work hard to fully comprehend the complexities and nuances of being a young woman today, rather than simply overlay pre-existing narratives with tired archetypes à la 2016’s Ghostbusters. We must hope, too, that in light of Landis’ deplorable behavior, the sequel will aim to give agency and weight to its female protagonists, though this is little recompense for such troubling events. Ultimately, what made Chronicle so assertive a film the first time around was its ability to train a lens on the unlovable aspects of male adolescence, and unpick (albeit with supernatural device) the simultaneous blows of arrogance, precariousness, and fear that define turbulent youth. To repeat this will be a challenge, especially without the meticulous eye of Trank. We can only hope that the sequel retains its candor and, perhaps, finds for itself new idols to burn.

 

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