The brisk and invigorating Chronicle begins as the video diary of a wimpy kid, develops into an innovative superhero picture, and winds up as something that might have been retrieved from a police evidence locker - which is to say, it's quite the ride. We open on Andrew (Dale DeHaan), a sensitive, sad-eyed Seattle teenager pointing his new video camera - a 90s model, because we intuit he can't afford much else - in the direction of his bedroom door, with the aim of warding off another beating from his alcoholic, recently unemployed father. Ranked some distance down the social food chain, both at home and at high school, Andrew's fortunes change when - moping alone, save for his recording equipment, on the outskirts of a party - he's recruited by a pair of more popular contemporaries to film a hole that's opened up in a nearby field: all three emerge from the experience with telekinetic powers.
What's fun about the film is that the director, Josh Trank, and the screenwriter, Max Landis, initially treat these powers as no biggie. The boys - Andrew, his best pal Matt (Alex Russell, resembling a stray Franco brother) and school presidential candidate Steve (Michael B. Jordan) - first test out their telekinesis in much the way one suspects any group of dipshit teenagers would. They stage spectacular, Jackass-y pranks, and muck about with Lego in their bedrooms, when they're not troubling the skirts of the opposite sex with a leafblower. Even when the physical strain involved in mind control causes a gushing nosebleed, Matt reacts with a sniggering "I'm having a face period!"
A giant leap forwards occurs when Andrew realises he no longer needs his tripod, but can use his new-found skills to float the camera above and ahead of him, like an astronaut in zero gravity - at which point, Chronicle develops beyond the point-and-shoot functionality of its predecessor Cloverfield, where the image was (deliberately) limited to whatever the characters could capture on their cellphones while running away from a giant stomping monster. Trank is effectively allowing Andrew to choose his own shots - to shape a bruised and swollen life, as per the title, giving the film a woozy, vertiginous beauty in spots, the camera ascending, knowing no boundaries: the sequence where the lads similarly leave the ground to toss a football around in the clouds is an exhilarating, 21st-century update of similar flights of fantasy in Mary Poppins or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
The element of choice encoded in the camera angles also gives the film a thematic lift. Landis's script, namedropping Schopenhauer - Schopenhauer! - at a confoundingly early juncture, is nothing if not a B-movie consideration of free will, and it's telling that really bad things only start happening once Andrew has control of the camera, and of his own image, wrenched away from him; if we know anything about this type of movie, it's that great powers rarely come without great responsibilities attached to them. We get a hint of these when Andrew flicks an irksome driver's car off the road as though it were a piece of lint from his sleeve; yet adolescent sex becomes no less of a messy business when it involves superpowers, and - if nothing else - Trank and Landis deserve credit for sneaking one remarkably risqué sight gag through at the PG-13 level. (A similar gag was cut from the originally R-rated Will Smith vehicle Hancock back in 2008.)
Landis addresses one of the chief niggles with Cloverfield, where you always felt the characters would have done better to switch their phones off and run as quickly as they possibly could in the complete opposite direction to the monsters plaguing them; for Andrew, there's really no escape from his demons, so he can't help but capture traces of them on film. When Steve asks him whether he feels the camera puts a barrier between himself and everyone else, the response is a muted "sometimes I need a barrier", and we see how the offspring of an abusive pop and a terminally-ill mother might well want some distance from the world around him. Still, all these humiliations can get too much for a boy, and Andrew's response to them proves extreme, to say the least.
Sometimes the writing strays into pointing out its own cleverness. "This is the beginning of your downfall: hubris," smiles Matt to a beaming Andrew, shortly after the latter's rare triumph at a school talent show. Generally, though, Chronicle offers a new way of approaching both the high-school and superhero movie. I wonder whether those raised on TV's Misfits, or who stuck with Heroes until its death throes, will be as knocked out by it, but it's very strongly performed by its more or less unknown cast, and as narratively inventive as anything presently on release. Bonus points for tying up all its loose ends - very touchingly, as it happens - rather than holding out for a sequel; and if it sets its target audience to looking up Plato's Allegory of the Cave on Wikipedia, then so much the better.
Chronicle opens in cinemas nationwide today.