Nerve indicts the bad social media consumers, but lets you, the "better watchers", off the hook.
"I spend a lot of time on the dark web." So says Tommy (Miles Heizer), when asked how he knows what's going on in Nerve. It's the sort of non-explanation that passes for characterization in a movie like this, which is to say a movie that's less about the internet or surveillance culture or even the "dark web" than it is about kids in trouble.
This familiar idea is here dressed up to resemble a dystopia yet romantic action movie, featuring a bit of obvious social commentary, along the lines of "Be kind instead of bloodthirsty", "Play by the rules", or maybe, "Kids, don't try this at home". As structured by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who also made Catfish and Paranormal Activity 3, the story circles around a game called "Nerve", played via social media. The game engages watchers, who remain anonymous as they pronounce dares to the players, who are subject to all manner of monitoring, most of it cruel and abusive.
This set-up might seem to make Staten Island high school student Tommy's knowledge of the dark web -- not to mention his association with super-skilled Hacker Kween (Samira Wiley), the film's singular Fierce Black Female -- helpful, if not central to the plot. But no. Rather, much of the first hour is focused on the self-improvement antics of Tommy's best friend Vee (Emma Roberts). Shy and creatively inclined (she owns a camera that isn't in her phone), she's introduced as she frets over her own "dark" doings: a series of carefully composed close-ups -- screen, keyboard, fingers, eyes -- reveal without dialogue that she hasn't yet told her mother, a nurse named Nancy (Juliette Lewis), that she's applied to and been accepted to Cal Arts, a school that is expensive and, no small thing, located across the country.
These first images lay out what's good and not so good about Nerve, its formal cleverness and narrative clunkiness. As Vee frets pretty much continually, mostly about how she wants to be brave, the camera follows her energetically, framing her to suggest surprises await just off screen. When she decides to play Nerve, Vee pauses briefly at each dare before she proceeds, sliding quickly into a crowd-sourced pandemonium.
While Tommy follows her choices, trying to protect her, Vee's other best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), competes for numbers of watchers. When Vee meets up with another player, the charismatic and motorcycle-riding Ian (Dave Franco), the two embark on tandem dares, running around Bergdorf's, getting a tattoo ("Let Ian choose your tattoo!" reads the dare), careening through city streets on a motorcycle ("Get to 60mph -- blindfolded!"), revealing high school sorts of secrets and, as the game escalates, also being assaulted and targeted for murder.
Per the movie's argument, the players don't escalate the violence, but rather, the watchers do. Players have to record their dares for everyone to see, but watchers devise the dares and impose punishments for failure or for breaking game rules. You see some of these watchers, in inserts that recall those used in The Truman Show, glimpses of consumers whose widening eyes or dropping jaws suggest their utter investment in the spectacle, the increasing violence, the meanness visited on people who aren't them.
Moreover, the insatiable watchers produce content, for while they track players and make side bets, they also record, standing on street corners and peering through apartment building windows, their cell phones raised high. Uploading their footage, they orchestrate and dictate the action: Vee and Ian perform stories their viewers want to see, even as these stories lead to calamity.
Nerve invites you to judge all of them, the players who behave badly and the watchers who start wearing ski masks and bandanas so if they're caught on camera, their identities remain unknown and also, not incidentally, this makes them more villainous and self-aware than their Truman Show precursors. Like the consumers in The Hunger Games, they're voracious cartoons, easy to judge and so, dismiss. They're self-aware in a way that's different from the social media over-users in Catfish or Unfriended, in that they're not just faux-naïve or stalked by a cyber monster. These watchers are visibly insidious, their metaphorical darkness making the players seem brighter and less culpable. This goes double for Vee who, after all, only wants to change her fortune, put her past behind her and, as it turns out, find a nice boyfriend.
Unlike Vee, Nerve takes no risks. Even the far-from-radical Unfriended took a chance in making its victims emotionally troubling, morally difficult entry points for viewers. Vee is endlessly smart and adorable, even when she makes bad choices. She's as easy to like as her increasingly rowdy watchers are easy not to like. She appears in beautifully arranged compositions, pretty overhead views and exciting mobile frames. The movie never makes your choices difficult or challenges your role as a consumer, indicting consumers of violence in a way that's simultaneously obvious and pleasurable, and not at all your problem.