Are you a watcher or a player?
Venus ‘Vee’ Delmonico (Emma Roberts) is an introverted high school senior who loves photography but is struggling to commit to her dream of moving (from Staten Island to California) to study at CalArts, the pressure from her overprotective mother Nancy (Juliette Lewis) getting in the way. Her best friend Sydney (Emily Meade) however, is an unabashed extrovert, hooked on living life in the moment by partaking in dares for money via a site called ‘Nerve,’ in which people can either be a ‘Watcher’ or a ‘Player.’
After Vee suffers an embarrassing shut-down from her football star crush J.P. (Brian Marc), she signs up for a dare on Nerve to prove that she can be spontaneous, this propelling her into a wild night of debauchery alongside fellow player Ian (Dave Franco). As the dares escalate and get larger, so do the risks, dollars and Vee’s voyeuristic followers, with things eventually spiraling to out-of-control extremes.
Have you been to a local park at night recently? If you have, you may’ve encountered swarms of people addicted to the smartphone game Pokémon GO in which real locations become habitats for virtual monsters that players can actually catch. See, the eeriest thing about Nerve are its images of people glued to their devices — the huge amount of ‘watchers’ completely addicted to their phones and the world processed through a computer. So timely and relevant is this film, that it simply shouldn’t be ignored.
Based on the 2012 young adult novel by Jeanne Ryan, the screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, Speak (2004), is sharp, punchy and really well-layered as it exposes our obsession with social media and the Insta-fame monster — be it for laughs (like the ‘planking’ fad of some years ago), communal acceptance or cash — the active online community divided into desperate participants or commentating observers. Like most cravings, the initial contact seems harmless and fleeting, but with higher risks come higher rewards, the true cost ultimately becoming a loss of self-identity.
While I haven’t read the book myself, judging by the reviews I’ve perused, the movie is actually an improvement over the source material, with more depth given to its characters and the secret Nerve clique at large, which has been fleshed out further. Key to the success of the feature is its ability to express cinematically what prose would take far longer to render — the crowded internet chatrooms, the intensity of looking down from a wobbly ladder, the subtlety of a longing romantic gaze.
The production is sleek, with the cinematography by Michael Simmonds, Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), making use of vibrant neon glows in the way that Suicide Squad’s marketing promised, but ultimately didn’t deliver. The night-time atmosphere is further enhanced by a pumping electro score by Rob Simonsen, 500 Days of Summer (2009), which especially thrills during an edge-of-your-seat challenge involving a blind motorbike ride.
The acting leads in the ever-stunning Emma Roberts, Palo Alto (2013), and a dark and mysterious Dave Franco, Now You See Me 2 (2016), are a perfect fit — while the actors are actually in their mid-to-late 20’s, they easily channel their schooling years and have a tangible chemistry together. Emily Meade, Money Monster (2016), throws herself completely into the socialite role, contrasting against Roberts’ withdrawn Vee rather well. I must admit it’s a little sobering to see the usually out-there Juliette Lewis, Jem and the Holograms (2015), take on a rather thankless role as Vee’s mother, but she gets by just fine. Oddly enough, if she were the right age, I could see her portraying the role of Sydney with an effortless tee. And oh, keep an eye out for American rapper Machine Gun Kelly, who has a couple of good scenes as a rival participant, Ty.
No strangers to the implications of the cyber realm, what with their intriguing doco debut Catfish (2010) — exploring phony dating profiles — directing team Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, Paranormal Activity 4 (2012), don’t miss a beat with all the contemporary tech on display here. To some viewers, this may (at times) feel like a bit of overkill — for instance, a single swipe up from a phone gets Nerve on the large TV — but the reality is that what’s onscreen is all too current and all too available. It only goes to demonstrate 1) the many digital and online possibilities out there, including several that we perhaps haven’t caught up to, but more importantly, 2) how some folks get bitten by a web of consequential ignorance — do you ever read all the terms and conditions before installing a new app? How about consider all that metadata you freely share across social media networks?
Besides from exploring such issues, Joost and Schulman never forget to keep the pace going, with crafty dares scattered throughout; some funny, such as a compilation of ‘Fail’ videos, others nerve-shredding — how about dangling from a skyscraper … one handed?
With so many important and timely questions and concerns raised, Nerve stands as an original, gutsy, modern look at the present state of the online world. Not since the criminally under-seen satire Series 7: The Contenders (2001) — which grilled the growing extremes of reality TV — has there been such a sharply tuned social commentary on shared (accessible) media and what drives people to do the crazy things they do.
And hey, even if you don’t get all of that from the movie, it still makes for an excellent, slick ride — enough to persuade you to put aside the phone for a solid 96 minutes.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie
Nerve is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia