In a perfect moment of unplanned-for marketing synergy, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's spooky teen internet thriller Nerve comes directly on the heels of the nation throwing all reason and rationality to the wind and pursuing tiny virtual reality critters all over the world in the name of collective fun.
One thing the Web-based universe has provided us is the ability to crowd-source with incredible speed, and form a community around virtually any given topic. If the runaway-freight-train success of Pokemon Go is any proof, the idea that a massive, inclusive game could capture the hearts and minds of our country's youth is not the least bit far-fetched.
86 Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Juliette Lewis, Emily Meade
Co-directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Rating: PG-13, for thematic material involving dangerous and risky behavior, some sexual content, language, drug content, drinking and nudity (all involving teenagers)
Running time: 96 minutes
Though this particular concept, in which an all-encompassing "game" of crowdsourced dares leads contestants on an escalating series of increasingly dangerous and ill-conceived traumas -- starting with kissing a stranger, and ending some rounds later, with stealing firearms off of cops, crashing into blazing fire pits and, eventually, being asked to shoot someone -- might take that concept several healthy notches beyond plausibility.
Still, the idea that a group of anonymous "watchers," as the nonparticipants in the game are called, would demand ever-more-risky dares and titillate at the resulting carnage, seems all too believable. If ever you doubt the horrific alchemy of anonymity and public voice, check an average Twitter stream and watch the truly vile hate that can spew forth (as poor Leslie Jones of the modern Ghostbusters remake can sadly attest). Given the possibility of acting utterly reprehensible without fear of reprisal, it's shockingly depressing how many in our fellow species fairly jump at the chance to demonstrate their dank inhumanity.
Interestingly, it is this idea that powers the film along in its successful early going. As a thriller not dissimilar in concept from David Fincher's creepily fun The Game, it lands a few solid scenes, but as a treatise on the worst aspects of internet culture, it resonates with a certain amount of genuine clarity.
Our heroine is Vee (Emma Roberts, excellent in the little-seen Palo Alto), a demure high-school senior who lives with her single mother (Juliette Lewis: prepare to feel very old) in Staten Island. She dreams of going across the country to an art school, but feels as if she can't leave her mother alone since the death of her older brother a couple of years before. Her outspoken best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), meanwhile, is busy online, playing Nerve and racking up points -- measured by the number of watchers you garner while attempting your dares. Responding to her friend's challenge, Vee decides to go against her better judgment and join the game as a player, which soon finds her making out with a suave young biker named Ian (Dave Franco), and on an escalating Nerve-dare, going into the city with him for a night of carousing adventure.
The two of them continue their exploits -- running through an expensive Manhattan department store in their skivvies, going 60 on Ian's stolen motorbike while he's blindfolded -- until they quickly become the talk of the city, to Sydney's sudden consternation.
Naturally, even though Vee has thrown off the shackles of her repressive personality and appears to be having the time of her life while becoming spontaneously famous, the darker side of the game is always nibbling at the edges. This ultimately leaves Vee in a very dangerous position, having to rely on her friends, including the scorned Sydney and the saintly, wildly computer savvy Tommy (Miles Heizer), to help bail her out of the increasing amount of trouble she's getting herself into.
What the film has going for it primarily is a sense of immediacy. The trick in attempting to dramatize something as elusive and fast-moving as internet culture is just how incredibly easy it is to appear out of touch if you get the nuances wrong. But here, working from an insightful script by Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel by Jeanne Ryan, co-directors Joost and Schulman capture a surprisingly accurate piece of the online zeitgeist. The conceit of the game itself -- strangers wagering on whether or not a participant will succeed in potentially humiliating and/or dangerous acts -- seems all too plausible, as is the wildfirelike spreading of the concept among every young person with a phone (when Vee's oblivious mother is finally clued into what's been happening, she sighs, "You kids are the dumbest smart people I know") and the near-instant celebrity earned by the boldest players.
It also accurately renders the continuously sadistic nature of the online universe, where ethical morality gives way to the endless quest for further laughs. Too smart to be preachy, the film also employs a surprisingly effective sense of humor. Much is made of Vee's desire to get out of Staten Island, though the poor thing wears a school jacket with the name of her mostly shunned borough proudly displayed, but she can also recite extended Wu Tang lyrics (Staten Island famously being their hometown), as a way to "represent." When Vee's mother, a hospital nurse, expresses confusion at having mysterious amounts of money deposited into her account from her daughter's increasing game winnings, one of her black patients quips, "White people problems." For that, it also carries some genuine thrills -- a scene where a character attempts to cross between upper-floor apartment buildings on a ladder produces a powerful mix of anxiety and vertigo -- not so easy to pull off in the age of CGI laziness.
The cast is also pretty strong. Franco is one of those actors who does most of his emoting through the slightly different contours and permutations of his ever-present grin. Angry Franco turns the edges slightly down to look menacing; scared Franco flattens them out and exposes teeth; resting Franco just leers. It's an interesting trick, adding to the effect of always being in on the joke, even when one isn't being made. Roberts, however, has more going on than just a standard wallflower-coming-into-her-own type of character. There has to be vulnerability, but also a steeliness that belies it and Roberts, the daughter of Eric Roberts and the niece of Julia, is able to capture both swings adroitly.
Certainly the film forgoes much of its previous subtlety and meticulousness for a Beyond Thunderdome-like ending that goes well past anything even remotely possible -- that is, unless you think you could set up a full-on combat rave with spotlights, drones and thick crowds of masked teens at night, on freaking Liberty Island -- but that doesn't totally detract from the solid societal commentary it pulls off in its first two acts. It goes soft at the end but for long stretches, the film plays like a modern-era screed, a warning shot across the bow of our churning online culture. For its scathing successes, though, it still represents an opportunity missed: We could probably have used one right between the eyes.
MovieStyle on 07/29/2016
Print Headline: Nerve