It's telling of Hollywood's fumbling inability to portray youth that the most honest high-school movie in years involves three kids who accidentally gain superpowers. At a trim and athletic 83 minutes, Josh Trank's sweet-ass sleeper isn't exactly delicate in its handling of the social and familial traumas many kids must shoulder, but unexpected performances and stimulating storytelling make it worth a serious look.
Chronicle starts like many a found-footage movie, with the sensitive Andrew (Dane DeHaan) informing no one in particular that he's invested in a camera and plans on recording until his eyeballs fall out. Trank, who also co-wrote, gets cutesy with the format, jumping from behind the outcast's eyepiece and into security cameras and point-and-shoots with post-Blair Witch abandon, but it doesn't sully the core of the story — Andrew's relationships with his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), a self-aware wiseacre who quotes Jung one second and Jessie J the next, and altruist Steve (Michael B. Jordan), the can-do-no-wrong star athlete and student who's a shoo-in for class president.
Exposed to an otherworldly force in a palpitating sinkhole outside a party, the classmates soon gain unreasonable strength, telekinetic prowess and even the ability to tear through the air at high altitude. The power's an amusement for Matt and Steve, but for Andrew, backed against a wall by in-school torment, a physically abusive dad (Michael Kelly) and a terminally ill mom (Bo Petersen), it's not just an escape — it's a weapon. Lumping all these hardships into a single character sounds like a formula for Lifetime Movie Network bullshit, but DeHaan, who's got the raw reactive instincts of a young Leo DiCaprio, pulls it off with poise to spare, and Russell and Jordan hold their own, as well. The special effects are secondary to the effect each boy has on his friends.