Film Review: Nerve
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★★★★☆You’d be hard pressed to think of a film from the last year that opens with a scene more on-the-nose as Nerve. Emma Roberts’ Vee is procrastinating on her Macbook, Facebook stalking her high school’s football star, and listening to “sick choons” on Spotify. We see close ups of her cursor as it hovers over various icons; it waits temptingly over the “Like” button for her crush’s photo; we see her biting her lip, her facial movements tentative in extreme close-up; Vee gets a Facetime call from her best friend Sydney (Emily Meade). Before you’ve said “This is not how anyone uses a computer in real life”, something incredible happens during this call. The screen pixelates and freezes, as Sydney continues talking. It’s a small, but crucial subversion of an oft-used cliché, where video calls are instantaneous and apparently in 4K. It makes you consider exactly what the directors are trying to say with their overt use of online culture. By the end they’ve made such bold, ambitious statements for ostensibly a teen movie, that it makes the pandering of the first 20 minutes worth it. Vee is a senior in high school, struggling over her choice of college, and frustrated with her best friend Sydney’s (Emily Meade) popular girl domination over her. When Sydney goads Vee into signing up for an online game called Nerve, she finds herself doing things she never thought she would. Truth or dare without the truth, the Players complete dares for cash prizes, under timed conditions, all set by the online community of Watchers. Joining forces with her fellow Player Ian (Dave Franco) by popular demand, they embark on a night of carefree adventure – until the Watchers become increasingly more demanding, and the game takes a turn for the sinister. There’s no avoiding that what directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman do early on in Nerve is to establish the lives these kids lead, in a world that for all intents and purposes is ours. Screenwriter Jessica Sharzer’s early emphasis on already awkward slang builds on the usage of real-wold apps, to mixed effect: a teenager using the word “Instafamous” is hard to take seriously, while another brags about spending time on “the dark web”. One character’s use of the meme “This could be us but you playin” is genuinely funny, yet it already feels dated. These instances come in a flood, as do certain stylistic choices by the directors: angles of characters on bikes made to resemble stunt videos shared relentlessly on Facebook; multiple shots seen through phone cameras as Watchers record the live actions of Players; a colour palette heavily reminiscent of certain Snapchat filters; a soundtrack full of modern, “cool” young synth pop like Charli XCX, Halsey, and Jungle. These choices will be recogniseable to tons of teenagers, from the YouTube channels of daily vloggers, and the low-budget “look at me!” coolness of hundreds of YouTube short films. All of this could easily make Nerve feel patronising and out-of-touch, but the truth is that Joost and Schulman have too much sympathy for their characters to let that happen. They’re definitely suspicious of the technologies they’re portraying, and for good reason: Nerve (the game) builds your profile from information across the whole of the internet, including your bank account details. It, and its real-world parallels, propagate a seemingly easy route to fame and gratification amongst millennials and those younger.
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