If you read this blog regularly you might be surprised that there’s no Camp Stamp perched at the top of this review. Trust me, I’m even more surprised than you are. I went into Nerve expecting a trashy thriller version of Unfriended and, in some ways, that’s exactly what the film delivered. However, I was shocked to find myself genuinely engaging with its smartphone app paranoia instead of chuckling at that gimmick’s over-the-top absurdity. In fact, I think Nerve is actually kind of brilliant? Like, maybe one of the best movies I’ve seen all year? What am I even saying? There’s something really special about how the film adopts the action thriller genre for teen girl sensibilities that I find really smart & fresh, if not long overdue. Other YA action properties like The Hunger Games & The Divergent Series might have female protagonists, so Nerve isn’t exactly unique there, but they typically appeal to a much wider demographic within a certain age range. Nerve, on the other hand, is the single most aggressively feminine action thriller I can ever remember seeing, an aesthetic that mixes with its killer smart phone app technophobia premise to create something really fun & truly memorable without devolving into so-bad-it’s-good schlock. This film is the biggest surprise of the summer for me & I’m already prepared to watch it again, being “the watcher”that I apparently am.
I guess I should admit up front I was already a little predisposed to root for Nerve‘s success before I even reached the theater, because its trailer promised that it’d indulge in one of my favorite recent movie tropes. Something that really excites me in modern genre pictures is when directors incorporate new, cheap forms of disposable digital imagery in their visual palette. I’ve been delighted by the real time Skype horror of Unfriended, the psychedelic emoji & social media game kaleidoscope of #horror, the pixelated flip phone video footage of Amy, etc. The only time cheap digital imagery has actively bothered me in a film was in David Lynch’s persistently ugly standard-definition work Inland Empire, but I’m willing to chalk that up as a failed early experiment. Nerve joins the fray, picking up with #horror‘s particular adoption of social media game imagery in its story about fame-hungry teens completing an escalating series of dares for large piles of cash. It’s basically Do It for the Vine: The Horror Film, with a steady flow of “like” cartoon hearts & glitchy animated .gif imagery backing up its online visual palette with a kind of creepy, “dark web” terror & grotesque message board sense of humor. The visual choices are not subtle here. When the film wants to conjure Anonymous, it breaks out the Guy Fawkes masks. It is, however, very much of the time and, in my opinion, a fascinating new avenue of visual discovery for cinema to explore while it still feels current to the cultural zeitgeist.
Although the film’s premise of teens competing for social media fame obviously carries a lot of millennial-shaming baggage in its basic DNA, Nerve‘s secret weapon is in how it celebrates teen-specific adventurousness within that digital-age moralizing. High school photography student Vee (Scream Queens‘s eternally hoarse Emma Roberts) finds herself frustrated with her reputation as a boring nerd & decides to shake up her safe, suburban life by adventuring into the big city (think of a less racist Adventures in Babysitting) in a game of Nerve. Hideously self-described as “a game of truth or dare without the truth,” Nerve is a social media game that combines modern surveillance state mining of personal information from various online profiles with a deadly version of reality TV game show gawking not too far off from Roger Corman & Paul Bartel’s creation in Death Race 2000. This teeny bopper millennial version of The Running Man drags a reluctant Vee far outside her comfort zone, Trojan horsing a surprisingly potent coming of age narrative inside a tawdry action thriller shell. Nerve might indulge in some occasional eyeroll-worthy Hollywood touches, mostly in its pairing of Vee with a cute romantic partner (“Lil'” Dave Franco, whose brother James apparently exists in this universe as his famous self) & its depiction of female-jealousies competitiveness between Vee & her best friend, but those relationships are actually determined & manipulated by the game’s “watchers”, so they’re more a part of the film’s audience indictment than a blind misstep. For the most part, this film is about Vee’s journey to find her own strengths & desires in a wild, out-of-character night of teenage rebellion & Bling Ring-esque excess set to aggressively girly pop music beats & the same neon lights nightlife palette of films like Drive. Vee is likeable, but also vaguely undefined in a way that allows her to serve as an audience surrogate for the kids playing along at home (both in the movie & otherwise). I can’t remember the last time a dangerous action thriller was so unashamedly marketed for teen girls. I have to say, it felt refreshing.
Unlike the film’s trailer, I don’t want to give away too much of Nerve‘s plot here, but things do get a little more complicated as the film indulges in some Hackers-style onsceen coding on “the dark web” in the third act. Vee & her mysterious suitor find themselves “prisoners of the game” where “the only way out is to win,” unless they can tear the whole system down against in a life-threatening race against the odds or whatever. In some ways it’s actually a miracle, given how much ground it covers & cinema’s current climate, that Nerve wasn’t adopted from its YA novel source material into a years-long trilogy with a two-part conclusion. Instead, we’re blessed with a fairly concise & effortless action thriller that I expected to find delightfully corny but instead just found delightful. The two leads are cute. The internet-specific imagery gimmick afforded the film some all-important distinctiveness. When two girls have a climactic argument it’s over something much more personally significant than boys (despite that conversation’s catalyst). There’s a moment where Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” is actually put to important, narratively potent use, maybe even standing as my favorite pop music cue of the year so far. There’s a “White People Problems” punchline that’s somehow legitimately funny despite this not being 2009. I’m not sure if this technically counts as a spoiler, but my entire theater gasped with joy when Samira “Poussey” Wiley appeared onscreen halfway into the runtime, which was the best communal at-the-movies moment I’ve had in a long while. For the most part, Nerve just made me feel great, an escapist high that marks the best aspect of the summertime action thriller.
It’d be easy to treat Nerve like a campy farce, thanks to its ludicrous premise or details like its drone-based jump scare or its tense shot of a mouse cursor pensively hovering over the “like” button on a Facebook post. However, I genuinely enjoyed the film far too much to treat it that way and those elements mostly play like self-aware summertime fun once the overall tone finds its appropriate groove. It’d also be easy to fault the film for its millennial shaming in the way it depicts teens as smart-phone addicted fame chasers, but I don’t thank that reading holds water either. If anything, Nerve presents a fantasy world where technology actually makes people more adventurous instead of less insular (the same argument a lot of folks tend to use to defend the popularity of Pokémon Go). Instead, I’d pin the film as the most surprisingly successful popcorn flick of the summer, a thoroughly enjoyable action thriller that shouts its teen girl femininity just as loudly & proudly as its instantly dated, 2016-specific pedigree. I’m honestly still in shock over how much that dynamic worked for me.