“In its best moments, everything is breezy and fun, with a sly, nearly self-aware sense of humor under the surface.”
by Ken Bakely
Every now and then, there’s a movie, invariably aimed at bored teenagers, which ends up as a genuine object of interest – perhaps due to particular aesthetic ambition or some other stylistic ingenuity. Recent examples include the deftly satirical and tragically mismarketed Unfriended, and, I would argue, Henry Joost and Ariel Schuman’s Nerve. Both could be conceivably classified as “zeitgeist” material, as they’re very much objects of the here-and-now of their release dates, including the current trends of social media and the status of internet culture as vital to their plots. It ensures a new way of incorporating technology into cinema, and in true zeitgeist fashion, all but guarantees that they will be effectively useless as contemporary titles in about five years, and all-out relics within ten.
Nerve doesn’t go for all-out stunt filmmaking like Unfriended, but contains a similarly technologically advanced approach in constructing a plot. It tells the story of Vee Delmonico (Emma Roberts), an introverted high school senior in New York City who discovers an odd internet phenomenon. Her outgoing friend Sydney (Emily Meade) is a rising star on an underground “game” called Nerve. Nobody knows where it came from, but it’s growing at rapid rates. Upon signing up, one can choose to become a “watcher” or a “player.” Players are given a series of increasingly dangerous and obscure stunts to pull off (ranging from performing a public, impromptu dance number to driving a motorcycle blindfolded) for increasingly large sums of prize money (the most extreme acts can reap six figure rewards). Watchers pay a subscription, and film each exploit of a player on their phones, as well as suggest future dares.
On a whim, Vee signs up as a player. Her first assignment requires her to kiss a stranger, and she chooses Ian (Dave Franco), who happens to be a player himself. They team up, and soon become instant celebrities of sorts, participating in more visible and risky tasks for bigger and bigger payouts. But, of course, everything isn’t rosy – competition to become the top player on Nerve is fierce. Alongside that, everyone using the app, whether they be a watcher or player, is required to keep silent about the game’s existence. It exists in the echelons of the dark web, and as it turns out, there are some deep and horrific secrets that are fueling its massive success. As Nerve goes viral, the stakes keep rising. Sooner or later, something’s gotta give.
Joost and Schulman, alongside cinematographer Michael Simmonds, pack Nerve’s 96 minute runtime with a myriad of neon lights (this movie’s New York has seemingly been designed by denizens of Las Vegas and Macau), quick cuts, sharp pans, and energetic tracking shots. It would be tempting to dismiss this approach as an appeasement for the so-called “ADD generation,” but it works within the context of the story – sleek, instantaneous, and teetering on the edge between plausibility and all-out surrealism. It’s then when the film is undeniably enjoyable, especially in its first act as the story roars to life. In its best moments, everything is breezy and fun, with a sly, nearly self-aware sense of humor under the surface. It helps that Roberts and Franco have fine chemistry with each other.
Unfortunately, this setup is let down by a follow-up which increasingly veers into the territory of lazy writing, closing on an ending that’s little more than hastily constructed, thinly veiled moralizing on the dangers of the internet’s collectively anonymous, bloodthirsty hivemind. This is a shame – up until this point, Nerve presents itself as too polished to be cheap with its payoff. After all, it’s a film which has prided itself on coolness in (sometimes overly) obvious ways. When things come to a screeching halt, as screenwriter Jessica Sharzer seems to scramble to outline a quick ending point, “lacking” is the only word which can be accurately used. A number of questions go unanswered, like how – considering the big, overstaged setpieces that occupy the last few scenes – Nerve is able to continue its existence under the radar. There are tens of thousands of followers in New York alone. How are the creators’ identities and motives still a mystery? How are non-watchers and non-players still so blissfully oblivious?
But you could effectively argue that this is fairly insignificant, that by the time one questions the plot in such fundamental ways, that everything that needed to be established has already been established, and thus those flaws are not fatal. It doesn’t kill what Nerve is able to accomplish up until then. Joost and Schulman are still able to pull off a decent task, which is depicting a fairly well thought out scenario, stretching it to the breaking point, and setting things into motion with ample amounts of whiz-bang. I was never bored, and on that base level of achievement, the movie worked. I just wish it could have built its plot in a sturdier, more self-reliant way.