“Joost and Schulman direct Nerve with incredible conviction”

by Steve Pulaski

Few directors other than Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (responsible for the Catfish documentary and subsequent TV series, on top of the third and fourth installments of Paranormal Activity) force us to take a good, hard look at the digital age and how it has shaped the ethics and behavior of society and culture as a whole. The aforementioned Catfish was meant to be a shocking examination of how you really don’t know who you’re communicating with when you talk to people online, and now their latest film, Nerve, shows the rampant desecration of society’s feelings and sympathy for one another and their individual selves as well.

Nerve depicts a terrifying society that we have already begun to embrace; a despicable, attention-obsessed “me” first culture that does stupid, reckless, or inappropriate things in hopes for immediate gratification, the attention from others they demand and crave, or, even better, the best of both worlds. Because these actions, however, carry little weight other than being the latest momentary attraction, there is a prolific quality to these things because it is inevitable that society will forget about such small, insignificant events occurring and seek out the latest stupid action done by somebody else. It keeps the other peoples’ lives interesting, keeps us entertained, and succeeds in making the process a cyclical one, in addition to a vicious one.

The film gets its name from a popular online video game that entirely takes place in the real-world. A “truth or dare” style game, “Nerve” requests you identify yourself as a “player” or a “watcher” of the game – players conduct a series of dares that range from awkward and mildly embarrassing to life-threatening and illegal in exchange for hefty amounts of cash, while watchers pay to see players conduct these dares from their phone. A high school senior named Venus, nicknamed Vee, (Emma Roberts) decides to play the game after her best friend Sydney (Emily Meade) tells her she is boring and was born to just be a “watcher.”

Directed by
Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade
Release Date
27 July 2016
Steve’s Grade: B

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Vee’s first dare is to kiss a total stranger and receive $100 for her compliance. This is how she meets Ian (Dave Franco), another soul who has decided to take on the role of a player in Nerve. The two wind up riding around New York City and doing everything from trying on expensive clothing, going 60 mph on a motorcycle while blindfolded, and even crossing between two high-rise windows via a poorly secured ladder. The one thing they discover is that once you play Nerve, you become a prisoner of the game’s pervasive, sinister dares, and the only way out is to reach the finals, win, and earn your title as the game’s winner.

Both Roberts and Franco work wonderfully as the leads who are not your every day leads; Roberts has played both the rebel (Wild Child), the outcast (Nickelodeon’s Unfabulous), and a nice mixture of both (The Art of Getting By), while Franco continues to be difficult to fit into a specific box and shows his talents for operating all over the place. Both of them find strong ways to work off one another’s energy here, and they each have their own moments where they can operate by themselves and prove to be two independent units.

Meanwhile, Joost and Schulman direct Nerve with incredible conviction. This is the poster-child of a film that can be pretty mild and restrained one minute before going completely manic the next. Both men capture that intensity through a lot of sweeping shots that paint the city as a playground for millennials to utilize in their quests to get financial riches from silly dares, and cinematographer Michael Simmonds takes liberal splashes of neon coloring and soaks the screen as if he’s trying to give Nicholas Winding-Refn’s terrific Neon Demon a run for its money in the visual department.

Nerve gets a little bit more obvious with its conclusion, which prefers to openly moralize the present situation in a way that only people in movies do with words and phrases only people in movies seriously listen to (but maybe therein lies the optimism). While that does make the film more off-balance, it doesn’t derail or shortchange how well this film understands the culture of being “insta/Vine-famous” nor how it doesn’t feature any particularly smart characters to outweigh the dumb or impressionable ones. It’s a film that paints us all as potential enablers of bad behavior, players of rigged, dangerous games, and even accessories to murder in a commendably uncomfortable way.