The premise of Nerve is not new. The idea of an online “game” or blackmailer challenging users to dares which are then monitored by their mobile phone has been at the root of at least two other pieces of filmed entertainment this year – iLived had a supernatural background and the episode “Shut Up and Dance” from Black Mirror involved punishment.
Starring Emma Roberts as impoverished photography fan and bookish high school student Vee, a quiet observer of life who likes to take part from the edges and never really drives any adventure in her life, the film is about a character having the nerve to seize the moment and try something new. Her exhibitionist best friend is Sydney (Emma Meade), who introduces her to the game called Nerve. The game, which comes in the form of an app, asks all new users to to decide whether they are Watchers or Players. Watchers pay a fee to access the live footage of players taking part in the dares – and in much the same way Twitter and Instagram users increase their success by gaining followers. To be a player, you are sent challenges in the form of financially insentivised dares. Complete a dare and money is transferred to your bank account. Fail a dare and that money is recouped. Sydney is loving the attention, performing for the camera of her smartphone and putting on a show.
Vee, after being rejected by a boy who was asked out on her behalf by her more gregarious friend, decides to make a change and joins Nerve as a Player. And then her life inevitably changes.
In a very short space of time, as the challenges and dares grow and the amounts of money being offered in prizes increases beyond the point Vee can turn it down, she becomes one of the lead players of the game. And, unsurprisingly, this is much to the disbelief of her friends. As the film progresses the scope of the dares become more legally dubious and dangerous.
The single night timescale over which the majority of the film takes place is a little unbelievable – it doesn’t make sense that someone who only so recently started playing could go to the top of the leader board so quickly when clearly hundreds of other players have been taking part. In fact the entire film relies on the audience allowing it a healthy dose of willing disbelief suspension. It gets to a point that as an audience we just stop asking “but.. why would,… why did,… but,…” and just get on with watching the story, however implausible it might be.
The idea at the crux of the film actually has more to say about the way people act up when they know others are watching. The bigger the audience, so the argument of the movie goes, the more likely they are to go wild. Or the more likely they are to have the nerve to act differently. Although based on a novel, in a script by Jessica Sharzer, in many ways it’s no surprise to discover that the film is directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. They were the documentarians behind the fascinating true life story of digital personality fraud that was the movie Catfish. And if you haven’t seen that, then track it down – it has a lot to say about the way we are representing ourselves online. Nerve is doing the same thing, albeit a little less successfully. It’s an entertainingly daft thriller, which seems to become less plausible as it continues – but the idea that behaviour changes with the pressure of an audience is interestingly presented. Again it’s also the premise of the episode “Nosedive” from the most recent series of Black Mirror.
Obviously there’s no suggestion that Nerve has copied any of these plots – apart from anything else the book it is based on was published in 2012 – but it is interesting that this sub-genre has become so popular this year. Whether someone is behaving or acting up for their social media audience is a question asked more and more now of millennials, particularly as many among them become famous off the back of their social media accounts. Nerve taps into the fear that people are behaving differently by making the audience watching complicit in that behaviour. And again that morality tale, of an audience behaving equally badly as an anonymous mob is given evermore currency today as that mob sits behind a screen, but has been an issue for drama on screen as far back as the locals wielded flaming torches and pitchforks outside Castle Frankenstein in the 1930s and the Colosseum crowds baying for death in the sand and sandal Roman epics of the 1950s and 1960s.
The directing duo do a good job of representing the internet and apps on the cinema screen – the graphics work alongside the displaying of online video is particularly reminiscent of Facebook Live video and Periscope. It is one of the best non-specific-but-accurate seeming depictions of the internet seen on screen for some time. And it’s a pacy film which skips along, but in doing so skirts over a subject which deserves a much meatier examination.
The performances from leads Emma Roberts, Emily Meade and Dave Franco as well as the supporting cast are good considering the material they are given, but this is lightweight fare which works fine for entertainment but does not provoke anything like the introspective reaction the subject matter could engender. The events take place so quickly and so conveniently that the audience is left wanting a darker exploration.
Nerve comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray on 5th December. It is fun, but could’ve been more.