I still remember the discomforting response I had to Catfish, the 2010 documentary from Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, which explored a period in the life of Schulman’s brother Yaniv, commonly referred to as Nev. Seemingly captured dead-center in the midst of the online movement, the rise of the communal potential of social media before the inevitable cynical backlash, Nev found himself in a burgeoning relationship with a woman who was most definitely not all she appeared to be, from the standpoint of her curated online profile. The filmmaking duo hovered on the periphery, volleying between hopefulness and a largely unspoken sense of foreboding (who wants to rain on romantic possibility), casting shadows on Nev’s innocence, and our own.
With that virtual paradise lost in the rearview mirror, Schulman and Joost return, in Nerve, with far different aims in mind. Working from a screenplay fashioned by Jessica Sharzer from Jeanne Ryan’s novel, they replace the real world with a fictional virtual escapist fantasy, zeroing in on the Young Adult set.
Vee (Emma Roberts) is a purely classic type, drawn from myths of old, the impossibly high-achieving good girl, the one most likely to succeed, but also the girl who is trapped within the ever-tightening confines of the role assigned to her. She dreams and crushes on the most popular jock, while ignoring the attention of her geeky brother-in-arms. And she’s waiting for her chance to breakout, to carve out a new identity in the crucible of crisis.
In the social media age, crisis starts, teasingly with a flashing iconic dare. It all seems so innocuous. Wake up before the nearest screen, download an app, becoming a “watcher” or a “player,” and enter the game of life. Vee can’t take up the challenge on her own, but Nerve, the online trigger, jolts her into action.
She’s ordered to go to a diner and kiss a stranger. She chooses Ian (Dave Franco), a handsome figure to be sure, telling herself it is because he’s reading To the Lighthouse, her favorite book. After completing her first dare, she watches as Ian sings and dances around the diner, bounding across tabletops with the greatest of ease. He’s just to good to be true and she can’t take her eyes off him. Nerve’s “watchers” are beguiled by this duo, matching them up on an escalating series of dares, with steadily rising monetary payoffs being deposited into their accounts.
This is where the game and the world of Nerve circles back to the concerns Schulman and Joost had their eyes on in Catfish. We live in a time when we know the government and big business can track us via our cell phones and our spending records and our browsing histories – we have handed access to all of this intimate information over without question – so it should come as no surprise that not a single alarm bell goes off when the money starts rolling in and the challenges arrive, tailor-made to each individual player’s profile.
Knowing audiences will draw comparisons to movies with similar themes, many of which get references (the blue pill versus the red pill scheme lifted from The Matrix to the Guy Fawkes masks reminiscent of V for Vendetta) embedded in the virtual framing of the narrative. The creative team must feel indebted to David Fincher’s The Game, since the premise merely shifts the age and gender of the protagonist and sets the ball in motion, but I found myself wishing they had taken the time to screen Fincher’s Fight Club before production commenced because what Nerve needs is more of that film’s daring. Why not push the inherent cynicism to its justified end?
To do so, takes real nerve, and maybe we fear exposing this emerging generation to that possibility, but I wish Schulman and Joost had embraced more of the unease and even the anger simmering in today’s world. Millennials have seized upon the information freed by Snowden and WikiLeaks, witnessed and taken part in the Occupy Movement and felt the Bern in our political discourse. Who says they can’t stand to gaze at dark reflections and find a truer image of themselves?
Rating: PG-13; Grade: C+