“Nerve” Review: Watch Them Play

Courtesy of Lionsgate
Courtesy of Lionsgate

Well, this movie has a lot of Nerve… especially because it’s unexpectedly quite an enjoyable film.

The pulse of Nerve is really in its concept, and it’s a concept you’ve probably been overexposed to if you’ve been on the internet in the past few weeks (if you haven’t, welcome back!). But even if you walked in cold, the vehicle isn’t exactly high concept. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, Nerve is a movie about a new interactive game – called “Nerve” – where participants can film and complete, or watch as ‘players’ complete various dares in exchange for cash. However, as the game progresses, the stakes are only raised…

While ‘Truth or Dare’ (without the truth) doesn’t necessarily seem like it’d make for an interesting narrative, what makes Nerve fascinating is its exploration of choice. Because the rules of the game often force users to make one of two choices (watch vs. play, accept vs. decline, etc.), any movement of the plot comes from an active character making an active choice.

Written by Jessica Sharzer, it soon becomes very apparent that this ‘game’ is the perfect way for the film to explore its themes of voyeurism and control. The ‘players’ use the agency provided by choice as a form of empowerment, but also the cause of a lot of bad decisions. The ‘watchers’ hide behind a one-way mirror to judge and impact the lives of those they view. Even the audience falls into a trap of watching and forming bonds with the characters, while the characters have no way of watching back.

Even though the piece is more of a thriller than a character study, each of the different characters has defined character traits. Vee (Emma Roberts) has often been sentenced to the passive role, having each of the choices in her life made for her. Vee spends her spare time as a photographer for crying out loud; her time is spent watching rather than acting. Sydney (Emily Meade), Vee’s best friend, juxtaposes her. Sydney is a cheerleader and is much more active and outgoing. However, when the game picks up steam, these roles are reversed. This about-face allows for some interesting dynamics as Ian (Dave Franco), a mystery slowly solved by the film, teams up with Vee.

But for all of the interesting conversations to be had about power dynamics, Nerve is a movie that will ultimately satisfy few. The film is heavily inundated with internet culture but takes too many liberties to be ‘realistic’. However, for those not intimate with how the internet works, there is too much slang for the movie to seem human. For those of you who tend to ruminate on a film’s plot, there are a lot of ‘plot-holes’ and inconsistent intricacies that may prove to be a distraction. And for those of you who are more interested in character and theme, the ending the film focuses far too much on creating a dynamic plot than a dynamic thesis, making the required ridiculousness of the climax all the more frustrating.

Courtesy of Lionsgate
Courtesy of Lionsgate

That said, Nerve’s success goes a lot further than just its core concept. Considering that the film is adapted from a novel (written by Jeanne Ryan), one would hope. The style of the cinematography is fascinating, and an important distinction from book to screen. Because of the nature of the narrative, the film is often forced to cut between perspectives. With the camera operation split between a phone camera and regular, a lesser movie would feature significant visual disconnect. However, Nerve’s static camera option avoids a narrow depth-of-field, mimicking the phone’s eye.

Not only this, but there are plenty of neon colors to give the movie some stylistic highlights. Michael Simmonds does the cinematography, and while some of the moments and cues feel a bit muted, it’s clear that the choices are there. And sometimes that’s all it takes to give a movie its authenticity.

Authenticity is a term that gets thrown around a lot in relation to internet entertainment and is interesting to discuss in this context. Although the manufacturing is apparent in just about every element of the movie, it is still able to capture that authentic energy that makes it so engrossing. There are awkward moments, weird sound editing and silence, but they never seem to pose a problem because the film has self-awareness as to what it is. As much as it is manipulating the audience, it is allowing the audience to come up with their own reactions – whether of shock, disgust or amusement – and working from there. While also a commentary on the illusion of choice, it also allows for more of an emotional investment while you are in the theater.

Nerve is probably one of the most important films no one will talk about. It deserves mainstream analysis, but people will likely forget about it in a few months. That’s okay. It’s not a revelation in any way, but it is doing a lot of interesting things, especially notable because this concept could have easily turned into a lot of schlock. Instead, a couple of people might be surprised by how much it strikes a Nerve…

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