Neon lights reminiscent of Korine’s deranged and hedonistic Spring Breakers shine through this teenage techno-thriller that unapologetically throws us into the life of a high school senior Vee (Emma Roberts) and her generation Z peers, whose virtually-mediated reality gets a daring and dangerous twist with a sudden emergence of a new game/phone app called Nerve. Almost overnight the game seems to overflow the entire Manhattan and even those who are reluctant to join eventually give in, either due to sheer interest or as a result of relentless peer pressure.
Vee, a quiet teenager who likes to stay inside her comfortable zone and tries to avoid any (un)wanted attention (that persistently follows her ostentatious best friend), is definitely one of the later. And while she otherwise seems content by her unexciting and adrenaline-free life, she eventually caves in to her peers – if only to prove the point that she is not as boring and afraid of seizing life as everyone assumes. To prove that she too can be hip and cool, she impulsively decides to join the game – and not just that. There are two options of participating – you can either be a watcher; a voyeur hidden behind the screen, watching others except and complete dares for money, or you can step out of the shadow and become a player. Which is exactly what Vee decides to do.
Soon after she completes the first dare she teams up with a mysterious Ian (Dave Franco) and it is not long after they join forces that the dares start to escalate into ever more crazy and impossible scenarios. Things eventually go too far, with film losing its main power of being scary exactly because it was plausible. Instead it moves into a sphere of impossible to the point of ridiculous, resulting in a weird hybrid of the show Jackass and The Hunger Games. Nerve indeed seems to be putting to a test both how far the players are prepared to go at excepting stupid and life-threatening dares in return for some quick cash and momentary fame, as well as how far the watchers are prepared to go at demanding petrifying tasks for their own entertainment. But instead of staying in a scary-enough territory of things that could (and probably, at some point, did) happen, it completely loses its way in the second half and it never quite manages to pick itself back up from the messiness it got itself into.
While the players slowly start to drop out as the dares become ever more brutal and dangerous, the watchers do not seem to care about the line of what is still legal and acceptable. Feeling safe behind their computers, they keep on rising the stakes and it is not long before the game turns into a modern-day gladiator arena. They want blood, they want fatalities – and by this time there is hardly any options to get out anymore; it is simply kill or be killed.
The film is very aware of its post-Snowden era and the cinematography, constantly switching perspectives between film, mobile and computer camera, indeed gives us a feeling of the players constantly being spied on and surveilled; as if the web itself had eyes, persistently observing their every move. At times the perspective also moves to that of anonymous watchers watching the game on their phones or computers, ruthlessly commenting on what should happen next, while also continuously posting harsh comments that borderline on cyber-bullying. But Joost and Schulman (whose Nerve marks their return to exploring the darker side of internet identities and anonymity after their 2010 documentary Catfish) fail to carry this side narrative to any meaningful ending. Although Nerve clearly draws some inspiration from last year’s cyber-horror film Unfriended, it does not manage to tackle the cyber-bullying quite as successfully – instead of showing us just how brutal anonymous watchers can be, how they rarely understand the consequences of posting an insensitive vlog or comment, of clicking a button that could determine someone’s fate and how (even when confronted) they rarely feel any remorse about their actions, Nerve turns the narrative into a ridiculous hacker-war where watchers become semi-accountable for their actions; only that nothing actually happens except for everyone leaving the game by temporarily going offline. Perhaps we were supposed to believe that they actually felt remorse after they got exposed as accomplices in a crime; but why would they? Why would they not just turn to a new gaming platform where their anonymity would be restored, where they would be able to continue operating in the same, hurtful manner?
Nerve clearly seemed to have bigger aspirations at making a social commentary about contemporary teen culture and perils of technology than it actually manages to deliver, but it still manages to make some relevant points which elevate this film into a far more entertaining experience than I have initially anticipated. However, it does not come even close to portraying the deranged youth culture obsessing over fame, wealth and immoral hedonistic escapades as Harmony Korine did in Spring Breakers, and it furthermore fails at successfully blurring the lines of when the game is actually being played and when the game, by becoming bigger than life, starts to play us, as the criminally underrated Cronenberg’s eXistenZ managed to do. By relying too heavily on currently relevant social media to be able to survive the passage of time and by ending the story in a far too simplistic manner, this film will leave the majority of people somewhat unsatisfied, but for today’s teens of the Pokémon Go era it will undoubtedly go down as one of this year’s best cinematic experiences.
Directed by: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Written by: Jessica Sharzer (based on the novel by Jeanne Ryan)
Starring: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Juliette Lewis
Running Time: 96 minutes