Thursday, January 12, 2017

Redboxing: Nerve

by Rob DiCristino
Yeah, just one. Everything else I rented was boring.

There are a lot of bad movies aimed at teenage audiences, and the one sin nearly every one of them commits is condescension. Sometimes, it’s the well-intentioned pandering of a forty-year-old screenwriter trying to get hip to the jive lingo, writing for a multi-ethnic-and-suspiciously-one-percenty group of kids who are trying to get all lit and turnt-up IRL on their Snapchats even though the screenwriter doesn’t have any idea what any of that actually means. Other times, a film will feature a thinly-drawn cast of caricatures taking up spaces meant for flesh and blood people because some producer somewhere saw The Breakfast Club but missed the point. The worst of them rely on a teacher or parent to dole out life lessons around the hour-fifteen mark because the teenage hero is written as so short-sighted and self-absorbed that they failed to see the obvious solution that’s been right in front of them the entire time. The point is that we often avoid real complexity in these films because we fail to treat teenage issues as real issues that deserve our attention and respect.
This isn’t to suggest that Nerve fully dissects the teenage condition, but it’s smart and stylish enough to say something worth hearing. Based on the 2012 novel by Jeanne Ryan, it revolves around a group of teens playing a new online game that pays cash for the completion of dares proposed by the viewing audience. You either join Nerve as a Player or a Watcher; Watchers “follow” their favorite Players and film them during the action, while Players must complete challenge after challenge until they either bust out or win the entire thing. Terrified of the imminent burden of college debt and convinced by her friends that she needs to Loosen Up A Bit, Girl, Venus Delmonico (Emma Roberts) embarks on a wild night through NYC with Ian (Dave Franco), a fellow Player with whom their Watchers have decided to pair her up. They speed, shoplift, and make with the romance while Best Friend Sydney (Emily Meade) and Friend Zone Guy Tommy (Miles Heizer) look on. How far will they make it? Will they face off against top-ranked Ty (Colson Baker) in the finals? When will Vee’s mom (Juliette Lewis) catch on?

The drama is face-paced and the characters are charming, but what’s really on Nerve’s mind is the relationship between our real-world identities and the avatars we create for social media. Watching Nerve is relatively passive — Watchers can hide behind user names — but Players are forced to give up everything from their Facebook photos to their Amazon order histories. It all feeds into building the most comprehensive personal advertisement possible. The more interested the Watchers are, the better the dares will be, the better shot you’ve got at big money. It’s an interesting bit of commentary on the nature of celebrity and the ease with which it seduces us, and it’s constructed in a credible enough way that we never question why a person would streak through a department store or drive blindfolded down a major thoroughfare — money and fame are reason enough. The stakes have to be compelling in order for an intelligent and self-aware young person like Vee to risk life and limb, and it can’t just be the allure of youthful rebellion. Nerve wants its characters to make mistakes and actually learn from them rather than simply face up to some all-knowing authority who’ll set things right.
It’s also a lot of fun to watch. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman infuse the film with an appropriate level of kinetic energy that never feels artificial. Often we see these films stretch credibility to force a bit of product placement or overdo the techno-babble in the name of haphazard world building, but there’s a nice balance here. It’s colorful, dynamic, and shot with a good eye. While the actual logistics of Nerve (like The Purge) don’t hold up to close scrutiny (the presence of a central control center or corporate infrastructure is never addressed, among other things), the internal motivations of the characters and their causal influence on the plot more than make up for it. Nerve is a film that would have been very easy to write badly, to get fixated on the “crazy Jackass dares” aspect and leave characterization behind, but it rarely does that. Decisions are made by characters who are acting in ways that fit their personalities, and the plot moves in one direction or another based on those decisions. It’s almost as if someone with a brain was writing a film for teenagers. Go figure.

Emma Roberts doesn’t quite have the chops to carry the heavier moments, but she’s directed very well and rarely put in positions that don’t play to her strengths. Dave Franco hunks about and more or less only speaks when spoken to, which feels exactly right for Dave Franco. Orange is the New Black’s Samira Wiley is a welcome addition as the den mother to an underground cadre of dark web hackers and amateur ping pong players, and it would have been nice to have seen her role expanded a bit. The star supporting performance, though, is Emily Meade as Sydney, the Popular Girl with the chip on her shoulder. Her own obsession with (and ultimate failure in) Nerve is effectively juxtaposed with Vee’s activities — she’s doing it solely for attention, while Vee’s efforts are a bit more altruistic. She’s beautiful and sad and the film never shames her for either of them (again, doing the seemingly-insignificant things right). Her character arcs along with Vee’s and creates the larger emotional stakes necessary to push the film into the third act with real momentum. These sound like basic screenwriting tenants, but it’s amazing how often we see them ignored.
Ultimately, it’s the faces we don’t see that matter the most. The Watchers act as an all-seeing hive-mind (think the Blanks from The World’s End), their phones glowing like fireflies in the night. The higher up the Nerve rankings Vee and Ian climb, the more fireflies follow in their wake. It’s a great stylistic choice that adds to the paranoia permeating through the film. Unfortunately, Nerve’s climax — a showdown with two pistols and a thunderdome full of Watchers hungry for blood — is its shakiest moment, a bit stilted and clumsy for a film that has demonstrated so much tonal control. Still, it’s trying to warn us about the dangerous anonymity of the internet and the importance of regaining our humanity when we’re exposed. It’s easy to troll and downvote when there are no consequences, when we don’t see the people we’re tweeting at as human beings. But the minute Shit Gets Real, the minute we’re told (to our real faces and real names) to own up to what we did, we fold. It sounds a bit preachy, but Nerve is the kind of teen movie worth championing, a movie that uses cell phones and Instagrams to say something real.


  1. This was on my top ten from last year. Ugh, I hate myself for saying that, but I only watched 37 movies from last year so get off my back. Anyway, great piece Rob. And I think you nailed down a lot of the reasons why I really appreciated NERVE. It should have been awful, and yet, somehow, whoever usually makes these sorts of movies awful just sort of stepped back and let the filmmakers make something kind of weird and goofy and fun. The stars align every once in a while for smaller, major studio release to be pretty good, and hopefully we get a few of them this year.

  2. Curious to see this now. Thanks, Rob!

  3. Just saw it on sunday and was positively surprised. I liked the actors, the premise, the visuals and the speedy pace. The finale was maybe a bit too much but hey, I had an unexpectedly great ride for most of the running time.