Directors: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Juliette Lewis, Kimiko Glenn, Marc John Jefferies, Colson Baker, Brian Marc
MPAA Rating: (for thematic material involving dangerous and risky behavior, some sexual content, language, drug content, drinking and nudity-all involving teens)
Running Time: 1:36
Release Date: 7/27/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 27, 2016
Nerve features a humdinger of a premise that seems perfectly attuned to the perils of the always-online culture. In the movie, there's an internet game in which willing contestants participate in a series of dares as relatively innocent as kissing a complete stranger, as dangerous as crossing between two buildings across a ladder, and as reckless as speeding down a city street on a motorcycle while blindfolded. For the one player who makes it through each and every dare without failing or quitting, the grand prize is money—lots of it, too, because the thousands of people watching the game have to pay a fee for the privilege. The consolation prize is knowing that thousands of complete strangers saw you making a complete fool of yourself or risking your life.
It's likely that the consolation prize is the real reward for a lot of these players. It's no surprise that our culture of social media and reality television has brought to the forefront the voyeurs and exhibitionists of the world, although it is a bit surprising just how many exhibitionists there actually are out there. As for the proliferation of voyeurs, one need only think of any time that traffic slowed to a crawl so that motorists could gawk at a car accident. The only shocking thing is how many people, given a sense of anonymity and freedom from accountability, would be fine wishing for or encouraging the accident in the first place, just so they had something at which to gawk.
The movie, written by Jessica Sharzer (based on Jeanne Ryan's novel of the same name), is a not-so thinly veiled critique on that culture. The focus of its ire, though, is on only side of the dynamic. What the movie doesn't examine is that one side of the relationship cannot exist without the other.
Of course, that's because the movie either doesn't understand or doesn't want to acknowledge that the connection is inseparable. To do so would be to call into question the main characters' motives and to hold them responsible for their own actions. It would also mean putting a damper on the tone of spirited freedom that directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman try to impart before the movie's message takes over in the third act.
The game is, obviously, called Nerve, and Vee (Emma Roberts), a shy bookworm, finds out about it from her friend Sydney (Emily Meade), a trust-fund kid who's only playing for the views. After being publicly embarrassed by the captain (Brian Marc) of the football team on whom she has a crush, Vee decides to join the Nerve community as a "Player," despite the protests of her friend Tommy (Miles Heizer), who serves as the movie's weak-kneed moral center (At one point, someone points out that Vee should show her independence by not listening to him, although the alternative—of following the demands of total strangers on the internet—doesn't seem that empowering, either).
Her first dare is to kiss a stranger, and not by chance, that stranger turns out to be another Nerve contestant who's near the top of the scoreboard. That player is Ian (Dave Franco), whose history with the game doesn't quite line up with his fun-loving attitude about it (If the movie's moral and logical foundations are inconsistent, it's probably not worth expecting consistency from the characters). The "Watchers," the anonymous community that sends dares to the Players, apparently like the two of them together, so Vee and Ian team up to complete a series of challenges.
Those challenges, obviously, increase in danger—from setting up a scenario in which the duo could steal expensive clothes (They get around it by escaping a store in their underwear) to the aforementioned race through the streets on a motorcycle while blindfolded. It's all presented as fun and games without consequences (even, somehow, during the blind joyride), but Jost and Schulman can't really escape the nagging doubts about the kind of fun and how much freedom there actually are here. It doesn't help that the characters are as much pawns for the plot as they are for the anonymous Watchers (Take the way Ian's attitude shifts only after a major revelation about his past comes to light or how Vee's grief about a deceased brother only serves to fuel her sympathy for her partner in dares).
The tone changes dramatically and almost instantly (cued by a neat shot of a contestant lying down on railroad tracks while a train passes over him and followed by that terrifying walk between buildings). Suddenly, the movie realizes this whole scenario might be a bad thing.
What's strange is that the movie becomes significantly dumber once it actually finds a legitimate target. The climax of Nerve, which juxtaposes masked people calling for murder with people participating in an online poll, is a pointed if woefully overblown call for people to consider their actions online. If only the movie had the same level of distaste with the exhibitionist Players as it does for the voyeuristic Watchers, it might have been on to something.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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