The characters of Nerve, the rare movie about our online lives that somewhat resembles the Internet we know IRL, may be cyborgs, so tightly are their smartphones clutched in their hands. The movie follows a group of teenagers, their phones, and the havoc they wreak in tandem with a virally popular augmented reality app over one downward-spiralling night, and in doing so calls to mind a key teaching of the celebrated Canadian cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan believed the biological work of being human would one day be, in part, outsourced to technology: deploying cameras to extend the reach of the eye, using airwaves and phone lines to transmit our speech, we would lease out our central nervous systems and precipitate a “technological simulation of consciousness”.1
The app, Nerve, is more of a bricolage of existing social media concepts and means of mediating identity: it scrapes user data for offset to third parties; some users traffic in fame while others merely aspire to it; love hearts burst across the screens of popular live broadcasts; and vexatious comments crawl up the margin of the screen en masse.2 But the app’s hook—and the movie’s—is its capacity to crowdsource dares from participants: eat dog food, shoplift gaudy couture, kiss an attractive Franco brother, and other stunts that may titillate those squarely within Nerve’s young target audience. Users claim hefty sums of cash upon completion, but nobody in Nerve seems to care a great deal about the financial incentive. Commanding attention on the Internet is remuneration enough.
The app itself splits its following into two tribes. Those who bid to place a dare of their choosing are Watchers, and those who profit by undertaking them are Players. Vee (Emma Roberts) is a shy photography ace naturally suited to the former camp who is pressured into proving herself in the latter. A senior standing at a crossroads with her future, Vee’s mother (played in all-too-brief appearance by Juliette Lewis) is poor, clingy and frantic; her older brother is dead. The directors lay down fuel for a fire that combusts predictably further down the track, but these backstory details are all but forgotten until then. Into this conceit Nerve mixes more familiarity: the archetype of the teen friendship drama. Vee’s shameless friend, Syd (Emily Meade), is brazen, takes risks, and is leagues ahead of her as a Player.
Were this movie set in the early aughts, you might expect boys or college admission drama to pry the pair’s differences wide open; in Nerve, fleeting social media stardom is the source of fracture. Many of the movie’s characters are ciphers—perhaps anonymous stand-ins for the audience’s own projections of online fame—and their speech is too plain to be specific to any zeitgeist; the most adrenaline-inducing moments are hindered by the armadas of teens idling with their phones at the edges of the frame. The story’s main beat, though, is Vee’s run-in with the tall, dark and mysterious stranger Ian (Dave Franco), with whom, the powers that be have determined, she will have to co-operate in order to complete the dares they are prescribed. Like most of Nerve’s elements, the modus operandi is less to flesh their romance out than hurl it at a wall and see what sticks. Roberts and Franco have chemistry even if they don’t have much to do, but each is too charming and sanitised to be as poor or rough as their characters purport to be.3
Wisdom holds that who we are online is an exaggeration of the lived self, but the makers of Nerve have other ideas. Across the serpentine 24 hours that Nerve is active in New York City, the characters compete, backstab and embarrass themselves for the Internet’s attention, and—in part because surveillance abounds, and the Players seem to not always be aware that their phones are broadcasting to the masses—their actions online come to be the only reliable wellspring of who they really are. The opening shot, if it can be called that, is more of a curated desktop. We watch as Vee manoeuvres through taps on her laptop, putting on down-tempo pop, keeping her distance from a crush’s Facebook page, and browsing through her Gmail inbox. We understand yet more of her indecision when she drafts a reply to a college scholarship offer saying she’s a ‘spineless loser’ and won’t be moving away from home.
Nerve’s co-directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, are alums of the Paranormal Activity franchise and the architects Catfish; they’re concerned, in other words, with intersection of new media, cinema and identity. Nerve is kind of like a movie crossbred with a hyperlink and edited with an exceedingly short attention span. The co-directors keep pace with their stunts by rifling through lo-fi phone camerawork, envisioning Players like pawns moving across gameplay terrain, and refracting faces through phone and computer interfaces, as though someone were inside the devices peering outwards. Even Nerve’s soundtrack, mostly deployed to bluntly underscore its heroine’s mien, is perhaps a Spotify playlist of the most played of the past two or three years. More than the hyperlink, a better comparison to Nerve’s wonky, often exhilarating storytelling may be the human body as it navigates a multi-mediated existence in 2016.
Nerve’s neatest trick is how it implicates its audience in the voyeurism it ultimately comes to admonish. The movie is savvy about its silliness, or perhaps silly about how smart it is. Its characters name-check the dark web and web-savvy hacking groups like Anonymous, but Tommy (Miles Heizer), the movie’s resident concerned friend, is the only one remotely interested in out who or what is behind the app.
That’s nothing compared to perfunctory finale, in which lessons about social media voyeurism are imparted and crooked fingers are raised and shook. The Internet can be fun but also bad, it seems. Especially when the Internet the movie imagines is like a vast sandbox, omnipresent and unregulated, and thus an odd platform from which to sermonise. The makers of Nerve must know that the hidden stakeholders of real-life social media networks all too regularly go unchecked: Who deleted a video holding Philando Castile’s shooter to account while odious clips go viral by the minute? Who replaced an entire news curating team with an algorithm? Nerve functions best when the Internet it depicts is least distorted and its alarmism is quelled to a quiet but constant hum. Juliette Lewis has the final word: “You’re the dumbest smart kids I’ve ever met”.