One of my favourite things about movies is that they often reflect the time period they were made in. Not necessarily the time period they are set in – I once had a teacher point out that Grease 2 (1982) is obviously a 1980s film, rather than a 50s/60s film like it sets out to be.
Nerve (2016), directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, is a reflection of the world that North American teenagers are currently living in. The film opens with Vee (Emma Roberts) logging into her Macbook (Mac? Mac Book? I am clearly out of touch…), and checking her email. At times the camera seems to be inside the computer screen, and we can see all the tabs Vee has open, and her face as she stares at the screen. Most of the time the camera is outside of the computers and phones, focusing on the young cast members as they navigate their way through their technologically-mediated world. Vee communicates with her friends through FaceTime, texting, and old-fashioned phone conversations. Sydney (Emily Meade) tells her about a new game called Nerve, where one chooses to either be a “watcher” or a “player”, in this game of truth or dare – without the truth.
At a pep rally later that day, Sydney moons the crowd – this is the first Nerve dare depicted onscreen. Liv (Kimiko Glenn) laughs elatedly as she films Sydney on her iPhone, with a fuzzy blue case reading “Teenage Dirtbag”. Everyone mediates their lives using their phones, computers, and cameras (in Vee’s case). The filmmakers never posit the idea that there is something morally reprehensible about technology – this is simply how the world is now. Everything can be instantly documented, and broadcast for the entire world to see. There is no “message” about how people should put their phones down, but rather, that it is more complex than that. There are amazing things about technological advances, and there are scary things about them as well. Joost and Schulman stated that they do not believe things are black and white – Nerve is empowering, yet scary at the same time.
The film is stylish and visually striking. Almost every location is lit up by bright and beautiful neon lights – even Ian (Dave Franco)’s motorcycle has soft purple neon lights installed on it. There are extreme long shots of New York City at night, all bright lights and small markers indicating where each Nerve player is in the city. It is not easy to portray content from phone screens on the big screen, but the filmmakers did an admirable job of portraying the way that technology is a part of how we see the world. In the “real world”, we cannot literally see coloured markers of who is playing what game and when, but we are constantly aware that there are people playing games and using apps all around us.
The target audience for this movie is teenagers – and the theatre I saw it in was filled with 14-17 year olds. It is visually and sonically flashy, and portrays young pretty people doing exciting and dangerous things. But the film is not so shallow as these things suggest. I don’t even think its surface is “empty”, but in fact, represents the filmmakers finding beauty and excitement in our current world, instead of romanticizing the past, or focusing on minimalism, like many films do. At the heart of the film, Vee makes her world a little bigger by taking risks that she normally would not. At times it is difficult, and she fights with her friends, but they all band together in the end to shut down Nerve when it goes too far. (I would watch an entire movie about Samira Wiley doing badass things on the dark web while playing ping-pong and wearing that sweatshirt that says GIRLS ON THE INTERNET AT NIGHT. She was a shining star in this movie.)
There is no heavy-handed message that young people are “supposed” to take away from Nerve, but I do appreciate its sentiment that sometimes it is a good and necessary thing to step far outside of your comfort zone. Yes, Vee is pretty, blonde, white, and thin, but I think this film can speak to anyone who feels like they are trapped in the identity that they have been known for their entire lives. This movie raises questions about technology, the Internet, surveillance, money, friendship, and voyeurism. It may seem like I am talking up this teen-thriller to be more than it really is, but I think it is one of the most interesting movies I have seen in 2016.