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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.

NerveEmma 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.

But the directors’ suspicion of this doesn’t affect their attitude towards the characters. Vee and Sydney in particular, use the available platforms to deal with their own issues, positively or negatively. Vee needs to learn how to rebel and not to do what other people want of her, while Sydney, constantly under the thumb of her insecurity, engages in bigger self-spectacle to maintain her power.

Technology is what enables the girls’ worst habits, but it can also be co-opted to give them more power. Emma Roberts and Emily Meade both give engaging performances, with Meade in particular impressing, as her less than heroic or entirely positive figure of friendship develops over the picture’s 90 minute runtime. Dave Franco as Vee’s partner-in-crime Ian meanwhile, gets to mix his comedic talents with his very unheroic appearance (he’d be playing a sidekick in a superhero movie). When things take a darker turn, it helps subvert genre expectations to have a less masculine man at the centre.

You’re likely asking yourself how it could possibly get dark – more or less everything so far makes the it sound like any teen coming-of-age movie, with a techno twist. That’s fair but it’s also definitely intentional: at times Nerve recalls films like Mean Girls, and a diner serenading sequence could have come straight out of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

But in its final act, Nerve becomes something else entirely becoming something like John Green meets John Carpenter, a pairing few could have guessed would work as well as it does.

Joost and Schulman took what likely began as a surface-level musing on the reasons to fear modern technology, and turned it into a far more ambitious metaphor for how oppression works in political and social systems, and about the collective responsibility to do fight it.

This final act development miraculously doesn’t break the film. Because it’s rooted in both the heavy exposition of the first act, and in the actions of our characters, it feels like a natural extension of the thrills we’ve been exposed to.

Nerve’s not action-packed, but it’s extremely well-paced, and two of the dares in particular (a blindfolded motorbike race, and a semi-naked shop sprint) are thrilling.

Nerve could have easily been a write-off: a cynical and soft-nosed attempt to make money off of modern culture.

Instead, it’s one of the most thematically dense films of the year – you could easily make arguments for how it’s a mediation on the power dynamics of BDSM, or the nature of sexual freedom for women who webcam, amongst other things.

It’s a cult classic in the making, a film with all the trappings of a guilty pleasure, but the same truly political, rebellious core as 80s movies, that are so rarely made these days.

Nerve is out on cinemas from 11th August.

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