Three high school students make an incredible discovery, leading to their developing uncanny powers beyond their understanding. As they learn to control their abilities and use them to their advantage, their lives start to spin out of control, and their darker sides begin to take over.

'Everyday superhero' genre taps into dark thematic territory.

The trailer will have you believe it is a blokey gagfest with supernatural underpinnings; the viral marketing positions it as an FX-laden, 'found-footage’ blockbuster-wannabe. And, sure, both these elements surface in debutant director Josh Trank’s Chronicle, but neither are reason enough to see it (nor should they be).

What makes Chronicle stand out from the shaky-cam crowd is its dark, complex moral centre – four words not usually associated with a genre that began with the notorious Cannibal Holocaust, peaked with The Blair Witch Project, begat terrific entertainment like Paranormal Activity, [Rec] and Lake Mungo, yet is still most often associated with dirge like Cloverfield, Apollo 18, The Last Exorcism and The Devil Inside.

Chronicle has, as its twisted soul, teenager Andrew Detmer. Played by Dane DeHaan, Andrew is a nerdy recluse who carries an unwieldy old video camera wherever he goes. With his greasy, too-long fringe dangling in his blue eyes, and carrying the sad-yet-edgy demeanour of a bullying victim, a compelling DeHaan makes you feel for Andrew’s situation, even though you don’t immediately warm to him. His dad (Michael Kelly) is a violent drunk; his mum (Bo Petersen) is terminally ill; only his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) shows him the time of day. Over the course of the film’s occasionally plodding first half, he is bullied and beaten both at home and in the halls of his high-school. We should pity Andrew, yet we never fully do.

The world changes for Andrew and Matt when, led on by 'Mr. Popular’ Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), they find a hole in a paddock that leads to a big, pointy subterranean crystal thing (it’s left entirely unidentified by Trank, though the core demographic will assume 'alien in nature’). After nearly being buried alive, the lads awake to find themselves capable of increasingly powerful acts of telekinesis. For Matt and Steve, already the centre of their world’s attention, the power just makes them feel that little bit cooler (and rightly so; able to levitate, they play an awesome game of catch high above the clouds).

But lifelong victim Andrew can now dictate to the world that taunts him on his terms and it is in the young man’s descent into his own inflated sense of self that Trank’s film takes on its most interesting, darkly horrific elements. He feels no remorse when he telepathically forces a speeding driver into a river; he disintegrates a small spider just because he can. In perhaps the film’s most disturbing scene, he boasts to his camera of the horrible revenge he has brought upon his tormenters (those with dentophobia should keep their eyes shut).

Though packaged in the easily-marketable sci-fi/thriller genre, Chronicle is not so far removed from such works of gravitas as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) or Mikael Hafström’s Evil (2003). When Andrew stands, back to camera, in a full length grey trench coat, one is unavoidably reminded of Columbine High School imagery. For some, Chronicle’s effects-heavy finale and very existence within the world of far-fetched fantasy will mute its impact as a dark study of a fractured, disconnected young mind, which is a shame. DeHaan’s central performance and Trank’s sly, subversive story-telling deserve to connect with audiences who are hungry for scary thrills served with complexity.

Technically, the filmmakers rely tremendously on the modern audiences understanding of found-footage film techniques. They push their manipulations right to the very edge of credibility on more than one occasion (to buy the premise, you must buy the notion that those collating the surviving images had access to every single pixel of filmed content; the reason for recording a hospital room encounter between father and son is a bit too much). It certainly helps Trank’s coverage that his lead character fancies himself as quite the novice filmmaker. And the characterisations of writer Max (son of John) Landis conjure familiar elements from the X-Men films (at their best when highlighting the ostracism faced by those with unexplainable powers) and Will Smith’s super-hero-gone-sour oddity, Hancock (2008).

That said, Trank and his superb editor Elliot Greenberg (who worked on the early found-footage cult-hit, 2007’s The Poughkeepsie Tapes) manage to overcome the inherent implausibilities in their story and craft a taut, smart, effective thriller that is super in its own, unique way.

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1 hour 24 min
In Cinemas 02 February 2012,