There’s no need to follow trendy and current notions of filmmaking when you really don’t need to. Project Almanac is, for the most part, a fun and effective science-fiction yarn mashed up with a decent morality tale for its targeted young adult audience. But it almost gets sunk by the overuse of shaky-cam found footage storytelling devices that add nothing and don’t need to be there in the first place.
It’s getting close to the end of the school year, and brilliant high school student and budding engineer David Raskin (Jonny Weston) is trying to earn more scholarship money so he can achieve his dream of going to MIT, and follow in his late father’s footsteps. While rummaging through the basement with his friends, he discovers a mysterious set of blueprints for a project that his father was working on. They put it together and discover that it’s a working time machine. They decide to take control of their own destinies and get anything and everything that they ever wanted out of life, but the more that they jump back, the more dangerous things become.
It’s surprisingly smart and emotionally balanced on a storytelling level, particularly when compared to the declining standards of young adult productions these days Project Almanac has all the elements of a universally solid story for all ages, but shoehorning it all in to a first person motif where people are candidly referencing the camera and trying to use jumbled cinematography as a device for tension almost makes it painful to watch on a visual level. But the key word here is ALMOST.
Director Dean Isrealite and co-writers Andrew Stark and Jason Pagan find ways of taking a fairly prototypical high school existence and flipping it for maximum effect. The kids are attractive, suitably awkward, and not trying to fulfill any stereotypes about nerds or minorities. Their problems feel realistic and not overly manufactured, which makes the time travelling consequences for wishing for a better life feel fresh instead of tired. These storytellers use time travel well and not as a means of trying to fix weak writing mishaps or plotholes. The effects of their tampering are subtle at first, which lends an air of authenticity that places emotion over spectacle.
It’s less a movie about theoretical and more a morality tale about the consequences for not being honest. We root for these kids when they’re having fun, and feel equally bad for them when they realize that they just can’t have it that easily. It’s not their fault the cinematography is annoying and sometimes pulls them all out of the moment. The stylistic conceit should have been axed from the script very early on and never talked about again. It’s the kind of film that should have been granted a much larger budget than it ultimately has. The cast and the meat of the script could have easily supported and warranted it.
Weston has a knack for playing the social awkward hunky kid and his effortless charm and empathy carries the emotional load of the movie. He’s a very typical kind of smart teenager that we rarely see in films: he’s logical when it comes to academic matters and a believably frightened and scared young man with everything else in his life. Sofia Black-D’Elia has great chemistry opposite Weston, coming off as much more than a standard teenage love interest, and the balance of the ensemble gives the script plenty of characters and personalities to play off without feeling like filler.
But if there was ever proof positive that you don’t always need to add a gimmick to a story to sell it to audiences, Project Almanac would be the perfect piece of evidence. There’s a solid film inside here that could branch out beyond the 11-16 demographic, but on a technical level it’s hard to watch. I probably didn’t appreciate production value when I was that age (OK, I did, but I was a rarity), but I like to think kids these days know the difference between crappy YouTube videos and something that they just spent $12 bucks on. It’s so close to being great that it’s frustrating. Then again, if you have a severe fondness for crappy YouTube videos and that’s all you know of cinema, Project Almanac might be the best movie you’ve ever seen.