Thirteen years after “The Blair Witch Project’’ kicked it off, the found-footage genre is finally expanding its boundaries beyond ghost stories (“Paranormal Activity’’), monsters (“Cloverfield’’), and demons (“The Devil Inside’’). That’s right, “Chronicle’’ is a found-footage superhero movie. Can a shaky-cam musical be far behind? How about a YouTube-ready biblical epic? (“Moses! Turn off the camera, already!’’)
“Chronicle’’ will never be mistaken for an artistic breakthrough, but it has a solid gimmick and pieces of it are brilliant. Told mostly (we’ll get to that in a bit) through the video-camera lens of a pasty Seattle high school loser named Andrew (Dane DeHaan), the film “documents’’ the aftermath of his encounter with a mysteriously glowing space rock. Along with friends and fellow discoverers Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), Andrew realizes he can levitate objects and possesses super-human strength. He can even soar through the air.
All of this is presented with the rough-and-ready disbelief of kids hacking around with a camera after school. What would you do if you could fly? You’d play touch football in the clouds, of course. The super-power Andrew comes to appreciate most is his newfound popularity: Matt and Steve are BMOCs (the former a handsome intellectual, the latter the glad-handing class politician), and in their company he blossoms socially. No more hallway beatings and sneers from the cheerleaders.
In the cruel Darwinian calculus of “Chronicle,’’ though, once a dork means always a dork, and Andrew begins to contemplate darker uses for his gifts. Directed by Josh Trank and written by Trank and Max Landis (John’s son), the movie throws a lot of influences into its pot, including “Carrie’’ (the hero has a drunken lout of a dad, played by Michael Kelly), “The Invisible Man,’’ and real-life high school rampages. These elements combine both queasily and cleverly, and somewhere around the midpoint we realize that Andrew is shaping up to be the movie’s super-villain.
What does any of this have to do with the whole found-footage conceit? Not much, it turns out. “Chronicle’’ can’t decide whether to honor its tatty little genre or be a “real’’ movie; it lets Andrew’s levitating camera find superbly composed angles and introduces Matt’s video-blogger love interest (Ashley Hinshaw) solely for the purposes of shot/reverse-shot conversations. Lenses and alternate points of view proliferate - security cams in all-night markets and hospital corridors, a host of tourist video cameras in the film’s loony-tunes climax somewhere above the Seattle Space Needle. Are the filmmakers satirizing the new conventions or just going overboard with them? It’s unclear whether even they know. (And another thing: Who’s editing all the footage?)
But that climax - two airborne high school seniors reducing downtown Seattle to rubble, goodbye Starbucks, farewell Amazon - is simultaneously ridiculous and wonderful. It honors a zillion low-budget monster movies that have come before while feeding into a zillion more adolescent fantasies of anger, power, and self-pity. The earlier sequences of the boys stretching their newfound abilities also resonate beyond the reach of the film. Superpowers here are an artless metaphor for growing up and coming into one’s own - for finally locating the special part of you that no one else sees.
Or they would be a metaphor if Trank and Landis had more on the ball. One watches “Chronicle’’ torn between admiration for the junk that works, disappointment over the rest, and a lingering curiosity about what John Hughes or Gus Van Sant could have done with this. Besides hiring a professional cameraman.