Ironic that a would-be sensationalistic, teen-tantric cyber thriller like Nerve would help me crystallize a long-gestating theory on high-concept polemics, but things happen. In essence, it’s common knowledge that high concepts can result in gutter-dwelling films, but a reason for why these concepts fail isn’t so simply curated, most often resulting in a casual dismissal as “lame-brained” or “silly.” Nerve helps distill that reason, specifically for these casually futuristic techno-allegories that pit modern technology as a wheel of horror on which overwrought social messages spin. In these movies, the dividing line between “good” and “terrible” isn’t merely commitment to or immersion in the fantastical material, but how the filmmakers choose to commit or immerse. If the tone is curious and observant, placing the audience as a clinical witness to the on-screen behavior, the material becomes more cerebral and absorbing than when the filmmakers lean on the concept as an over-stylized organizing principle, treating viewers as witnesses to nothing other than a supercharged CG slide show.
Nerve is the perfect sample of this theoretical dividing line since it is a combination of the two thematic approaches, at once a perceptive allegorical exploration of social networking extremes and a flashy exploitation of same. It’s acutely observant of the hair-trigger emotions and simultaneous technological expertise and naiveté of its Gen-Z characters, but also willing to utilize the abusive constructs of said technology for its own sensationalistic gain. No surprise that such a fascinating two-hander is directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman – after all, these are the guys who crafted the riveting and revelatory quasi-doc Catfish and then executive produced the transparently manipulative gotcha version for MTV. Here now, the tech-obsessed duo ditches the need for separate entities, conveniently merging the smart and the dumb into one slick-and-lean feature.
The title is derived from the fictional online game at its center, one of those one-step-beyond creations that stretch our current obsession with apps and social networks to Orwellian extremes. “Nerve” is described within the app itself as “truth or dare minus the truth,” an underground rage among teens that presents its “Players” with an escalating set of dares in exchange for an escalating amount of dollars. On the other end of the spectrum are “Watchers,” who pay a recurring fee to observe the mayhem and are about as valuable to the Players as the cash (think Facebook “Likes” or Twitter Followers taken to the voyeuristic brink). For Vee (Emma Roberts), who can’t even muster the nerve (pun fully intended) to ask out her high school crush, the game is her deep-dive into adventure, a crash-course in heedless escapism before she enters college. Her first challenge involves kissing a stranger, Ian (Dave Franco), who also happens to be a Player, and we’re off to the races.
The game – and with it, the movie – builds to fairly obvious peak of hysteria, though Nerve does manage to build tension on multiple levels. The game not only perpetrates individual escalation, but also inter-player one-upmanship, forcing the most “daring” competitors to face off with grander and, inevitably, increasingly dangerous stakes. How all the top Players in this would-be global phenomenon happen to be concentrated within the NYC area is something we should probably permit the filmmakers to get away with, especially since it’s mounted with endless visual panache and moves with an economical directness, a simple narrative within a high concept driven with jet propulsion.
And the dirty little secret is that, for the most part, it’s quite entertaining, carried by the sharp young cast and delivered with verve by Joost and Schulman, who are evolving into intriguing visual provocateurs. Their style is imbued with the attitude of the too-cool Gen-Z emo-punk, though somehow it doesn’t betray the rhythms of cinema. There’s a fusion of image and techno beat at play here that is uniquely cinematic, albeit within the context of a very anti-cinematic micro-screen technological boom. The screenplay (by Jessica Sharzer, based on a novel by Jeanne Ryan), is so intriguing it paints itself into a corner, eventually imploding in a staggering heap of clichés that embody the type of post-modern idiocy it had been content to immerse in without becoming infected. So Nerve is something of a rarity – a movie that both observes and immerses in modern mind-numbery, and a cautionary tale both in its narrative and its creation.