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July 29, 2016

Back in 2010, opposite the release of David Fincher’s The Social Network, a little documentary called Catfish came out. The filmmakers, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, told a weirdly riveting story about Ariel’s brother, Yaniv, who started an online relationship with a young woman who turned out not to be who she said she was. The film itself never made much of a splash, but Joost and Schulman turned the underlying concept into a very successful MTV series.

In the meantime, the pair have co-directed a couple Paranormal Activity entries. Neither was all that interesting, though I’m sure they kept the lights on. But now they’re coming back to familiar ground with an adaptation of Jeanne Ryan’s novel, Nerve, about a young woman who gets swept up into a game that blurs the lines between online voyeurism and real-world danger.

NERVE, the game, is billed as “truth or dare, without the truth”. “Players” accept dares, which they must record and broadcast through the app on their phone, for cash prizes. “Watchers” pay to watch the live-streaming videos, and can even broadcast their own for others to watch if they can find the players performing the dares.

Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts) is the last person her friends would expect to be a player. She can’t talk to the boy she has a crush on, nor can she tell her mother (Juliette Lewis) that she wants to go to CalArts rather than a school in New York City where she could keep living at their Staten Island home. Sydney (Emily Meade) is more the player type: outgoing, extraverted, and exhibitionistic. But when Sydney gets a little too pushy, Vee decides to play just one dare, just to prove she can do it.

That dare leads her to Ian (Dave Franco), another player, and then to another dare: go into the city with him. Roberts and Franco have an easy chemistry, so it’s no wonder that the watchers seem to like Vee and Ian as a couple. They get led into increasingly dangerous situations for ever-larger payouts, both in money and in fame. And the watchers don’t seem to care, so long as they get their vicarious, voyeuristic thrill.

In fact, it seems that the real measure of success in NERVE isn’t the money at all, but the social cachet. Vee may have gotten involved in part because two dares could double the balance of the family checking account, but Sydney was always explicitly in it for the exposure. There’s something seductive about the idea of taking control of the thing that threatens you. And few things are more threatening to young women today than the ravenous, ever-watchful panopticon of the internet.

Vee has made a habit of avoiding the societal gaze. Her skill is in photography, placing a camera between herself and the world. She marks herself as observer rather than an observed, to whatever extent that’s possible for a woman. But in becoming a player she attempts to invert the power of the gaze. If she’s going to be observed — as when Sydney outs her crush — then she is going to be in charge of what is observed. It’s the same attempt we see in Spring Breakers and The Neon Demon, both of which share Nerve‘s argon-purple and mercury-blue palette.

But where the protagonists of those films succeeded to one extent or another, Vee’s sense of control seems largely illusory. NERVE combines the voyeurism of a street-fight on WorldStar with the anarchic, “for the lulz” ethos of a 4chan troll. It’s easy, separated by a screen, to forget the reality of the people we watch. When Sydney crawls out onto an extension ladder spanning the two wings of a high-rise building, I know that it’s being shot with green-screens and and pads just out of frame, and that as vertiginous and risky as the scene appears, Meade is in no real danger. But the internet plays a strange trick on us, when we see real lives and carefully constructed narratives mediated by the same moving images on the same website. The distinctions between the two start to blur, and we forget to apply more care and kindness to the real people on the other side of our screen than we do to a toy that exists for our entertainment.

Of course, in order to make this point stand out, the filmmakers have to heighten reality. Computers become magical, able to do whatever the plot requires of them. It seems at times that there is a mysterious inner circle behind the game, when I think it’s meant to be an entirely emergent property of the watchers. In a way, this lets them off the hook a bit, as if they were just going along with the really bad ringleaders rather than being personally responsible for the way their choices contribute to the outcomes.

Despite these flaws, the filmmakers do manage to get one thing very right. Unlike almost any other cautionary tale about the Dangers of the Internet — Disconnect, Men, Women & Children, Creative Control, and so on — Nerve sees an up-side. Vee risks a lot, but she gains a lot too. She uses her experience in the public eye to learn what she’s capable of, and she finds pockets of support among the indifferent masses.

For the mostly-teenage audience that will see this movie, the internet is not going away. It is a permanent part of their world. And while their parents’ generation might take some comfort in an affirmation of their worst fears — never mind whether they’re valid or not — all the scaremongering in the world isn’t going to unopen Pandora’s box. The digital landscape is one they’re going to have to learn to navigate, and that means being reminded of the dangers along with the benefits. It’s tricky, but they have no choice but to accept.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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