Film Review: Nerve (Ariel Schulman/Henry Joost, 2016)

by Jason Suzuki

The computer screen elements of this film will be discussed in a future addendum to my "Mise-en-Scene of the Computer Screen" essay. Below is a review of the film as a whole with brief mentions of the computer bits.

You're either a player or a watcher. This is how Nerve divides the interconnected world up into two categories. As the film goes on however in its "one-crazy-night" style narrative, we see that the line between player and watcher, participant and bystander, is not as easily delineated in this day and age. This is the same point Unfriended got across, but Nerve is refreshingly hopeful compared to the vengeful indictment of youth culture that was Unfriended. But the film from Catfish helmers Joost and Schulman has so much more going for it than just merely having its heart in the right place.

The film opens with the screen of Vee's (Emma Roberts) laptop taking up the entire frame. Within these brief moments we see the importance of family, her crush object at school, her passion, and her potential future with a college acceptance letter. This is the same well of information that the program Nerve will eventually draw from in order to come up with trials to keep Vee in her un-comfort zone. Her mother played by Juliette Lewis wants Vee to stay at home and commute to school, still clearly not over the death of Vee's older brother who Vee is on the eve of passing the age he was when he died.

At school Vee has a pair of close friends who act as her shoulder perched devil and angel: Sydney (Emily Medae), already a rising Nerve superstar, and Tommy (Miles Heizer), the kind of guy who would rather sit in the bleachers to the bleachers (meaning he doesn't want any involvement with his surroundings), respectfully. This all sounds familiar but as with most thrillers when the dangers kick in is where the film gets to really differentiate itself. Credit must be given to Emma Roberts for being able to portray ordinary and unpopular, something that is an easy criticism for these youth oriented films where attractive people are meant to be unattractive. The fact that two of her likes: Virginia Woolf and Wu-Tang Clan are integrated into the story rather than being just character dressing stands out among other fantastical depictions of youth that adult seem to have (did Clarissa really like They Might Be Giants? She has some explaining to do). Vee gets moments to show that her interests are meaningful to her and are more than just surface level fantasies of her creator regarding a quiet high school girl.

When Vee gets into a fight with Sydney leading to her friend, still on a high from a recent Nerve dare, getting Vee rejected by her crush from across the room she succumbs to the temptation of signing on to Nerve to prove she's not as passive as others, or herself, think she is. This is where the film begins to pick up and the visual and moral panache of the duo behind the camera come out. The moment she decides to be a player is seen from inside her computer monitor looking out. This isn't the typical webcam point of view but actually one where the icons for the site are between us and Vee, mirrored. It's interesting and evokes the surveillance of the game and the mixture of the categories the film will tackle later on.

From here the film freely moves between non-diegetic cinematography and video from devices in the world, mainly smart phones. Text messages, facsimiles of smart phone screens, and other digital visualizations are included within the frame. This is a way to allow the ability for the audience to see new information the same time the characters see it while we are still able to to see their reactions and interactions with their devices. Recently filmmakers have had to come up with creative ways to incorporate the increasing role these sorts of technologies play in the lives of characters they want to depict and these have come in the form of uninspired visual representations to just flat out filming over a character's shoulder at the screen they are looking at with various interlacing effects. It has been a struggle to find that balance between noticeable and seamless integration and while films like Detention brilliantly take it to the extreme, Nerve has seamlessness in mind and its visual language is fantastic.

As the night goes on Vee meets up with fellow Nerve player Ian (Dave Franco). From their they have an increasingly dangerous Roman Holiday broadcasted on smart devices everywhere. One of the most beautiful moments of the film, in which there are many thanks to its varied neon color schemes, is a dare for Ian to perform a song dance in a crowded diner. The combination of musical imagery (stepping on a chair's back so it falls over) and almost A Snake of June level tinting has with it that special feeling of "movie magic."

But where the film should ultimately win you over is its social substance. The film posits that it's easy to call for the death of another when voting behind a username and it does not shy away from this reality and wants to hold those accountable. This is where the thematic relationship with Catfish comes in. And to the film's credit it never feels preachy, even when characters are preaching. It's been made with the audience it wants to deliver its message to in mind but it never feels dumbed-down or belittling. Nerve takes the moral high ground but it is never above being a romantic high-school thriller as well.

Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.