Project Almanac and the Rise of Found-Footage Teen Movies

The low-budget, handheld-camera style of filmmaking got its rise in the horror genre, but its growing place in youth-centered movies makes perfect sense.

Paramount Pictures

When Project Almanac's trailer first surfaced last year, skeptics and gimmick-weary viewers let out something of a collective groan. The Michael Bay-produced teen-driven film lies at the ambitious intersection of the time-travel and found-footage genres: The former boasts a long list of well-loved forbears including Back to the Future, Interstellar, Donnie Darko, Looper, Groundhog Day, Time Cop, and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, many of which Project Almanac references in the film. Time travel has a kind of universal appeal; it plays on audiences' desires for puzzle-like narrative complexity and what-if fantasies.

On the other hand, since its mainstream introduction with The Blair Witch Project in 1999, found footage hasn't aged quite as well. Long associated with the horror genre, the descriptor "found footage" is over-used and poorly defined, while the movies to which it's attached are rarely well-executed. The criticisms lobbed at most found-footage films consistently echo those recently, and perhaps fairly, leveled at Project Almanac: chiefly, that the label is an excuse to make a relatively low-budget movie with lazy storytelling, shallow characters, and obnoxiously shaky camera work. Nevertheless, the disjointed and deeply self-conscious nature of the found-footage format works feels surprisingly honest and timely in teen-centered films like this one.

The premise of the film (formerly and awkwardly known as Welcome to Yesterday) is fairly simple: Nerdy-but-attractive high school genius David Raskin (Jonny Reston) gets into his dream college and wants to make a last-ditch effort to win a scholarship by coming up with a brilliant science experiment. The discovery of a strange home video from David's seventh birthday leads him, his sister Christina (Virginia Gardner), and his friends Adam (Allen Evangelista) and Quinn (Sam Lerner) to find a time machine prototype left behind by David's father, a brilliant scientist who died a decade earlier. After some experimenting, they get the machine to work and go back in time to do various young-people things (win the lottery, go to Lollapalooza), but inadvertently and invariably, they cause a lot of bad, tragic stuff to happen along the way.

From a purely technical and aesthetic standpoint, the found-footage style does almost nothing for the movie, raising more questions than it intends to answer. Like others of its ilk, Project Almanac can't seem to make up its mind about committing to the found-footage approach or not (Where is the mood-setting music coming from? Why are there multiple POV shots? Why did Christina start obsessively filming way before her brother told her to start documenting everything?) And for those who watch the trailer, Project Almanac will be a sci-fi film with few surprises. The kids use their "temporal relocation device" for fairly innocuous, expected purposes: to win the validation or love of a super popular/hot classmate, to re-do a chemistry class, to punish a bully, to be seen as cool in the eyes of their high school.

But it's in this context—Project Almanac as an earnest, yet flawed depiction of teen wishes and fears—that the filmmaking approach takes on new significance. The genre dramatizes the identity formation that goes on during the digital technology-glutted adolescent years, which are filled with screens and captured images, whether from smartphones, cameras, vlogging, or pictures on social media. While earlier in the 20th century popular culture more frequently imagined the camera as a voyeuristic tool (see Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window), the reality of recording has been far more normalized today, even if it hasn't lost its insidious potential. For the most part, characters in films like Project Almanac act like themselves, unfazed by the camera ever-trained on them.

Others, such as The Dissolve's Scott Tobias, have also noted the distinctly modern appeal of found footage in lending a sense of verisimilitude. But it's a truthfulness that has particular resonance with the teenage experience. In Project Almanac, there isn't just the main, audience-POV camera. There are mirrors, Facebook photos, Instagram videos, many of which capture the teens doing things they don't remember because they happened in an alternate-time universe. The film's found footage approach emphasizes this weird alienation, not as deeply creepy in the way that horror films tend to, but as a fairly normal part of being a digitally connected teen. (To understand this sense of alienation, all you need to do is go to your earliest Facebook posts, or your MySpace, or your LiveJournal).

Teens—already notorious for their self-consciousness and broader concern with social acceptance—face the added anxiety of literally seeing themselves as others see them. This idea of split selves, made more fantastical as when David sees his older self reflected in the mirror at his own seventh birthday party, serves a narrative purpose in a time travel story. Video cameras in effect create two different types of realities: the lived experience of the person being recorded and the image that will be captured for posterity. The filmmaking style inadvertently highlights the role screens play in how David and his friends view themselves as people: uncool, girlfriend-less.

Found-footage films add an extra layer of self-awareness both on the part of the subjects and on the part of the audience. The characters in the recordings know they're being recorded, and the audience knows this too. But for the teens, this is no different than with YouTube videos, or Instagram selfies, or Snapchats. Hence the awkward glance David casts toward the camera as his crush Jessie (Sofia Black D'Elia) inches closer to him. Or when a more transparently performative aspect creeps in to how the characters behave, as when Christina turns to the camera slyly and pulls her shirt off to reveal a bikini top while at Lollapalooza. If much of this feels grating or forced, it's at least comforting to know that there's some truth to it.

Recall found footage's ubiquity in the horror genre, where the original idea is that the people we're watching are no longer around to tell their stories, and all that's left is the recording. Many of these films, Project Almanac included, don't quite go so far as to kill off all their characters, but the recording is meant to serve more as a document, a kind of digital memory, for the teens themselves. In a "pics or it didn't happen" age, where anything that matters should be preserved and shared, this intention is all the more sympathetic. Which perhaps explains the recent spread of found footage to teen movies such as Project X, Chronicle, Earth to Echo, and of course horror films like the atrocious Megan Is Missing or the upcoming Unfriended. The genre may feel worn-out, but found footage seems to have found a new, and natural, home in youth-driven films.