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Review: Nerve (2016)

Nerve (2016)

Directed by: Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman

Premise: A high school student (Emma Roberts) signs up for an online game in which she is given dares by the viewers and broadcasts herself completing the tasks through her smartphone. What begins as innocent fun becomes increasingly dangerous.

What Works: Movies about the internet are often steeped in paranoia. From 1995’s The Net to 2014’s Citizenfour, cinema has consistently presented cautionary tales about the web. Nerve is certainly within that tradition but this is one of the better titles to dramatize how human relationships playout in the age of digital media. Nerve begins as a story of a sheltered, shy young woman on the cusp of her high school graduation who joins an online game and comes out of her shell. On this level Nerve is a satisfying teenage coming of age flick. The movie is led by Emma Roberts in the role of Vee, an introvert who is relegated to the position of observer and sidekick. She lusts after a high school jock and plays a supporting role in the life of her friend Sydney, played by Emily Meade, who lives an exhibitionist lifestyle in which shares, likes, and followers validate her existence. As Vee’s adventures overshadow Sydney’s online presence long standing rifts in their relationship are exposed and lead the two women to a confrontation. The filmmakers smartly weave social media into their relationship as the online game brings characters together and plays a role in driving them apart. But Nerve becomes a different kind of story as the dares escalate from innocent fun to dangerous stunts. As Vee attempts to escape the game she finds that the operators are vindictive and the audience is callous. In this respect, Nerve says something about online culture and specifically how anonymity empowers hateful comments and destructive acts. Nerve is a slickly made movie and it uses the imagery and style of mobile technology in smart and cinematically interesting ways. The picture was directed by Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman who broke into the mainstream with their 2010 documentary Catfish and Nerve demonstrates the talent that Joost and Schulman have for this kind of material.

What Doesn’t: The logic of Nerve is always tenuous. The basic conceit of the movie—that young people respond to dares from an online audience—is believable but the mechanics of the game aren’t so plausible and the movie gradually loses its credibility before completely going off the rails in the ending. The story relies on too many coincidences and the characters jet across New York City with no regard for stop lights or speed limits and the City That Never Sleeps has remarkably little traffic and apparently no police officers. But aside from credibility, the movie also loses its nerve in the ending. The film is working toward a dark, nihilistic conclusion and this picture could have wrapped up with a subversive climax like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Taxi Driver. But the makers of Nerve don’t allow themselves to do something really subversive and so the movie has a disingenuously happy ending. Nerve doesn’t say much about social media or narcissism culture that hasn’t been said before and done better in films such as Unfriended and Scream 4.The film points out the hive mind mentality and the tendency toward extremism that defines discourse on the web but it comes nowhere near the hatefulness, destructiveness, and stupidity on display in any online comment section. In the same way, the movie fails to commit to the interpersonal stories and undoes some of the most interesting character moments in the film. Nerve also suffers from the casting of Dave Franco. The actor is fine and he and Emma Roberts are a likable couple but the role and the film would have benefitted with someone with a stronger and darker presence.

Bottom Line: Nerve is frequently ridiculous but it is also fun. As a teenage coming of age story and a techno thriller the movie succeeds more than it fails and the filmmakers successfully channel the cultural zeitgeist the way John Hughes did in the 1980s and Kevin Williamson did in the 1990s.

Episode: #606 (August 7, 2016)