(USA) Suspense/Thriller. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Starring Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade. Category IIB, 96 minutes. Opened Sep 1.
How corrupted are the teens of today? That’s the age-old question. Before, the threat was sex, drugs and rock and roll; these days it’s the pocket-sized computer that grants them access to every bit of information known to man. And if we were to follow the concern-trolling speculations of what some adults think is happening to teenagers, perhaps we would begin to envision the world of “Nerve.”
In this new teen techno-thriller, Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts) is a shy artistic teenager whose social circle is obsessed with a new online game, in which “players” perform community-sourced dares and collect “watchers” for a cash incentive. Egged into going from a watcher to a player, Vee’s first challenge is to kiss a stranger, Ian (Dave Franco), another player—and the second is to hop on his motorbike and go with him to New York City. With every dare completed, money gets wired to her bank account. But the stakes get higher, from the fairly innocuous to a stomach-dropping scene on a ladder suspended high above an apartment building.
Through the lens of directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (whose last film together, “Catfish,” produced both a cultural fascination and a verb), New York is lit like the inside of a club, frenetic with LEDs and soundtracked by effervescent breakbeats. The virtual world fuses seamlessly into the physical one: Shots inconspicuously move from standard movie camera pans into first person perspective into found footage. Watchers start as numbers rotating on the side of a mobile screen and later appear as friends at parties, or strangers handing them mysterious brown bags.
Like British TV show “Black Mirror,” “Nerve” takes a few pervasive characteristics of society’s relationship to technology and speculates about the worst possible manifestation of those characteristics. In this case, it’s our obsession with spectacle and desire for immediate social validation. But unlike “Black Mirror,” the assumptions it makes about people create unbridgeable plot holes.
These assumptions stem from the fact that virtually and
IRL, “Nerve” exists in a world where there’s no penalty for fairly extreme crimes and people get points for making painfully #basic Wu Tang Clan references. Instead, all their stupidity is excused by run-of-the-mill teenage insecurity. The filmmakers and Emma Roberts cling to the “misunderstood teenage wallflower” trope, and it doesn’t seem believable; nor does her relationship with Dave Franco’s Ian, who might as well just be replaced with a cardboard cutout of a grinning Dave Franco for 40 percent of the film. They aren’t necessarily bad actors or lacking chemistry—their characters just don’t have enough emotional depth to warrant their actions.
After all, we know that smartphones don’t corrupt people— megalomaniacal sociopaths with exorbitant wealth corrupt people. And despite what “Nerve” would have you think, there really aren’t too many of those around. The most obvious of them is too busy losing a presidential election to mess around with a smartphone game. Teenagers are safe—at least for now. Jessica Wei