Who needs to be told at this point that the internet is basically Tom Riddle's diary (seductive, addictive, you don't know where it keeps its brain, and it's trying to kill you)? Most movies about the internet imply that falling for its charms means that you're cripplingly insecure, a clinical narcissist, or both. But Nerve, a new teen-oriented techno-thriller, allows that there may be something less despicable behind a person's longing for internet fame. Or at least, a little less special.
Most of Nerve's story is laid out for you in the trailer: teens can complete crowd-sourced dares using a Periscope-like app that pays them out cash. On top of money, the goal is to accumulate "watchers" and become the most famous "player" as possible. This becomes dangerous, as things often do when life on the internet is portrayed in a feature film.
Nerve has the temerity to suggest that the lust for internet fame is not about being watched, it's about what being watched can get you — a clapback against a friend who's hotter than you, a boyfriend, a cool story, and easy money for college when your mother is broke. "Get rich quick" schemes may have come to the fore again in the age of sponsored Instagram posts and Netflix development deals for YouTube stars, but they weren't invented by it — doesn't everyone at all times wish there was an easy way to get out of debt and into the arms of some babe? Nerve doesn't exactly sing the internet's praises, but it subtly nudges toward a simple truth: maybe what's wrong with the internet isn't unique to the internet, maybe it's just what's been wrong with us always.
Nerve's heroine is a shy photographer named Vee (Emma Roberts) who can't bring herself to tell her working-class mom that Staten Island is terrible and she really wants to move across the country to go to a pricey art school. "A bored teenager," is the most popular writing prompt in the history of civilization, but it never really gets old. After a spat with her brazen, attention-craving best friend, who casually humiliates her over her unwillingness or inability to talk to a boy she likes, Vee vows to start taking risks. A hero's arc! Vee gets paired up with a heartthrob named Ian (Dave Franco!!), who drives a motorcycle and bites his lip a lot. The "watchers" love Vee and Ian, and initially shower them with cash, praise, and couture.
maybe what's wrong with the internet isn't actually specific to the internet
Though Nerve (the game) marries elements of Periscope with Gawker's Stalker Map, it never really dwells too long on the joys or perils of having thousands of fans. The screaming hordes tend to disappear when it's convenient for two characters to have an articulate conversation. What it's really concerned with is the daunting task of stepping out of your comfort zone, and secondarily, the lurking menace of internet-enabled mob mentality.
The heroes first rely on the teens of the world to pick dares that will just embarrass them or risk parental disapproval, and not carry any real chance of death. In a vacuum it would seem a sensible bet because most people you can name are not the type of people who would let things get that far. But for anyone with internet-induced cynicism, it's easy to see this will go south — and quickly. Roberts' and Franco's fourth dare is to get a motorcycle up to 60 mph on Park Avenue, blindfolded. (They survive, and make out. Good for them! Dave Franco!)
If you bet on people one by one — would they or wouldn't they propose a lethal stunt that could kill someone — the bet is easy. When you bet on a crowd the odds become imperceivable. Like Ned Stark and Pontius Pilate before them, the heroes of this story lose their bet that the mob is ultimately humane. But because Nerve loves its heroine, whose dabbling in risk-taking led her to bet not just on herself but on her generation, Vee's optimism is eventually rewarded. Her ace up her sleeve is a "Hacker Queen" who can strip the game's users of their anonymity. It's pretty unrealistic to think any of these 21st century teens believe themselves to be truly anonymous — the mob really just needed a nudge, and Vee is the thoroughly modern gal who thinks to remind them that they have names and are responsible for the horrible actions they provoke.
Nerve loves its heroine, and so do I
Appropriately enough, the film was directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the team behind the infamous 2010 documentary Catfish. Catfish was a fascinating, despicably exploitative film made by two very young and borderline incapable filmmakers who stumbled into a crazy, juicy story of working-class desperation. It looks like it was filmed on a flip phone and its eye is never anything less than thoroughly condescending, but it stabbed so aggressively at a fidgety, Facebook-fearing zeitgeist that it managed to coin a new term and become a smash.
After months of doubt about Catfish's veracity, its improbable box office success was swept out from under it by a mundane song licensing lawsuit. The film's creators then, have lived the plot of Nerve in miniature: catapulting off the infancy of the social web can make you successful, talked about, and flush with cash overnight, but as often as not it turns out to be a mirage. Nerve is the closest thing to this decade's Breakfast Club as I've seen so far, and it takes someone playing it close to the vest to do that.
Perhaps even more relevant to the film's big heart: Nerve is based on Jeanne Ryan's young adult novel by the same name, and has a screenplay written by Jessica Sharzer — of American Horror Story: Murder House, The L Word, and Speak acclaim. These women clearly have a love for their subjects, writing unnecessary but delightful scenes in which Franco and Roberts run naked through a Bergdorf Goodman and scoot across the Verrazano Bridge to the tune of Børns' "Electric Love." It's Sharzer and Ryan who provide the dumbest details about Vee — that she loves the Wu-Tang Clan and To the Lighthouse, like all self-made alt chicks — and it's also Sharzer and Ryan who let Vee turn into a complex heroine capable of engineering several plot twists. Thanks to them, the movie comes off first as a warm coming-of-age story that serves 2016 perfectly, and as a so-so techno-thriller only in the very back of my mind.
Nerve has the adrenaline-induced smooching of The Bachelor, the perfect face of Dave Franco, a soundtrack ripped directly from a Forever 21 dressing room, and a Staten Island Cinderella story that takes center stage, despite the broader apocalyptic conceit. It is a perfect teen movie. I love it.