The difference between an entertaining story and a great one is the difference between predictability and inevitability. A predictable conclusion is one where you guess with a fair amount of accuracy what’s going to happen at each milestone leading to the conclusion. An inevitable story is one where you know the outcome will be positive or negative, but you don’t really know how you’re going to get there.
One of the loveliest examples of an inevitable story line is Michael Corleone’s trajectory from noble son of a gangster to the very beast his father hoped he’d never become. On first viewing, we never knew how it was going to happen, but we had a pretty good (and uneasy) feeling it was going to happen.
Josh Trank’s film, Chronicle, is a riveting and largely unpleasant journey through the lives of three teenagers imbued by accident with super powers, and it falls squarely in the inevitable camp. It’s an uncomfortable movie because we are asked to identify from the get go with an ordinary troubled boy. We’ve all known him: damaged goods, probably sort of smart and probably sort of decent, but even more probably destined for the exact opposite of greatness. This boy – Andrew – is not likable. He’s not handsome or eloquent and seems to have no skills or quirks that make him interesting. But he’s also not the picture of darkness. We’re not meant to hate him, only to be a bit uncomfortable in his presence.
Although the movie is ostensibly about cool super powers, it really asks a fascinating question: What if that guy you never would have trusted with any demanding responsibility suddenly became super powerful? A not-quite slacker from tragic family stock who can suddenly fling buses through the air.
For my money, that’s a far more terrifying proposition than an evil mastermind or a seasoned, articulate career villain. The schlub who can kill you with a glance.
Josh Trank directs this whole affair with an earnest sense of precision. It’s often a very lovely movie to look at, and Trank understands how starry-eyed, easily distracted teenagers might become giddy for a while with their newfound powers. Often, those discovery trials are as funny or funnier than anything you’d see in American Pie or Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But Trank’s also got a slightly misanthropic outlook on teen life, a Columbine lens through which we get to see a mere dork descend into existential self-absorption. It’s sometimes ugly to behold.
These contrast between the silliness of being a teen and the dark longings of some teens’ broken souls is what really makes this movie work. I haven’t even mentioned the impressive and imaginary special effects. Why? Because they serve the story instead of dominating it. They are able to make a simple loser seem far more important than he really is. A message in and of itself.