The central premise of Nerve feels like something your mother would get an e-mail forward or see a 20/20 episode about, and that is absolutely the best thing that it has going for it.
Being the latest in a recent line of tech-savvy films which seem determined to make me feel ancient at age 28, the film serves as an analysis of Web 2.0 ideologies and social impact that comes from people who actually seem to understand how the internet works. Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, along with screenwriter Jessica Sharzer, have implanted the world of Nerve on top of our own for their just-barely-plausible-enough concept. It’s a second reality about augmented reality, which is an idea too good for the bare-bones story they have to build around.
Shy and introverted teen Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts) is facing a lot of issues in her life and wants to change her timid nature to be more her like thrillseeker friend Sydney (Emily Meade) who urges Vee to take more risks. Vee takes this to the extreme when she signs up for Nerve, an online competition in which “watchers” pay “players” to complete a series of increasingly embarrassing or dangerous dares around the city in hopes of achieving the highest viewer ratings. The watchers partner Vee with mysterious bad boy and fellow Nerve player Ian (Dave Franco) and together they complete challenges around New York City, which include getting tattoos, running through Bergdoff’s in their underwear, and driving through the city blindfolded. But when the game goes too far and impacts Vee’s personal relationships, she learns that she has accidentally given the reigns to all of her family’s personal information to the game’s anonymous managers and must become the Nerve champion to escape.
Rather than harp on the obvious “those teens and their gizmos needing attention” old-man angle, Nerve takes the high road. The focus is instead placed on the willingness of people to hand over their personal details without much thought. The watchers of Nerve have access to personal profiles of each player at their disposal to use in their challenges. If a Player is afraid of heights, the Watchers can put them in the air. If a Player likes a certain book or kind of music, the watchers can use that information to pair them with another Player. If it sounds a lot like Amazon, Netflix, or OKCupid algorithms, it’s supposed to. But it’s also an interesting storytelling tool. By sending us into Vee’s computer a la Unfriended, Joost and Schuman tell us basically everything we need to know about her character within the first thirty seconds of the movie. The film loves to play with the distribution of information and the majority of the movie is built on this commentary.
It’s also worth mentioning that almost all of the female Players’ challenges involve some form of sexual subjugation or general humiliation, while most of the male players have physical endurance challenges. This is intentional, and where Joost and Schulman refuse to let us ignore the darker parts of the internet. Nerve shows us the live-stream of Watchers during the Players’ tasks, and from the position of anonymity, they say truly disgusting and horrible things. Crowd-sourced harassment exists in the background radiation of the film as it does for most women on the internet, and although it’s one of the most gut-punchingly real threats in the film, it frustratingly doesn’t get the treatment it deserves.
This is because by the third act, Nerve switches into a general “alternate future, leader girl, mystery guy” teen sci-fi that we’ve seen done better so many times before.
While it’s easy to care about the ultimate outcome of the Players of Nerve in general, there’s not much reason given why we should be invested in Vee and Ian in particular. (Dave Franco is actually hilariously useless and incidental to the plot.) The paper-thin story and weakly-written characters actually serve to undercut the movie’s climactic finger-wagging, which essentially amounts to saying “the people you see on the internet are people in real life, too.” While this is an important and embarrassingly necessary message, it’s fumbled so hopelessly that it feels like a wasted effort. The weak story stumbles its way to a nonsensical and unsatisfying conclusion which squanders all the goodwill which carried the first two acts.
On a technical level, Nerve has an amazing and enrapturing neon-and-street-light hashtag-aesthetic that works on many levels, like the film takes place in the translucent coolness of the original iMac updated through an Instagram filter. It’s difficult not to want to go for a ride with Ian when we meet him singing Roy Orbison in a diner which feels cut from a Nicholas Winding Refn film. Cinematographer Michael Simmonds creates rain-slick visuals with just the right amount of garishness to support the pacing and tone of the movie. Like the Watchers, it becomes easy to ignore the darkness of what we’re seeing when it looks so cool. It’s supported by composer Rob Simonson’s electronic-bordering-on-chiptune score. Because if you want your movie to capture what an iPhone-world would sound like, why not get the guy who made music for actual iPhone ads?
In many ways, Nerve is like the younger cousin of The Purge, and like that franchise I hope it can overcome the missteps of the first outing and continue with its commentary in future installments. There’s plenty of goodness here to justify another outing, and I’m sure the Internet will continue to provide plenty of material. For now, though, the film is almost exactly what it needs to be for its release date and target audience. Hopefully a cult-classic position is in the film’s future, but ultimately its subject matter will remain more interesting than its story.
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