Saturday, July 30, 2016

Review: Nerve (2016)

Nerve (2016)

Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving drinking and risky behavior, some sexual content, language, drug content, drinking and nudity - all involving teens

Score: 3 out of 5

Nerve is a film that, had it been made just ten years ago, would've been called sci-fi. Such has been the rapid development of the internet and social media since that time. More specifically, it probably would've been called cyberpunk, an offshoot of the genre that focused on what was then the revolutionary technology known as computers. Cyberpunk peaked in the '80s and '90s, envisioning a future in which computers could be used to do anything, for good or for ill, and by either renegade truth-seekers seeking to liberate the world through free information or by Japanese megacorporations (they were always Japanese) seeking to dominate it for profit. Think Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, or The Matrix; if you're more the literary type, think William Gibson's Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. It faded out once we all got high-speed internet and became all too aware of the limitations of computers, to say nothing of the realization that the sorts of people who were often the heroes of cyberpunk novels were, in real life, often more concerned with spreading memes and attacking women who bruised their egos than anything else. Lately, however, its tropes have been making a very quiet comeback in all but name, driven by fear of government surveillance, of increasingly powerful Silicon Valley firms like Google and Facebook, and of the toxic troll culture that I alluded to in my previous sentence. The video game Watch Dogs from a couple of years ago stands as an example, albeit a highly flawed one that didn't really do much to explore that subject matter beyond use it as window dressing; better examples would include the TV series Mr. Robot and, arguably, Orphan Black.

And this film, Nerve, is a translation of that style to a teen flick. Instead of a badass, trenchcoat-clad "street samurai" who's as adept with his high-end laptop as he is with his katana and dual pistols, our protagonist is a normal teenage girl from Staten Island who finds herself in way over her head. Instead of the future, it takes place firmly in the present. (Okay, technically 2017, but who's counting?) The technologies used, from omnipresent smartphones to high-flying camera drones, are all real and in widespread use right now, not extrapolations of what we might have twenty to thirty years from now. The visual aesthetic is borrowed from real-life websites, social networks, and alternate reality games. And in the end, it's not commenting on where society seems to be headed, but on very real online phenomena that affects people today. It is also an absolute rollercoaster of a movie, one whose frenetic pace makes up for the fact that it starts to run out of steam by the third act. It may be blunt in both its presentation and its message, but it's still a very fun thrill ride from start to finish.

Our protagonist is Venus "Vee" Delmonico (Emma Roberts), an uptight, overachieving high school student who's constantly ribbed by her more outgoing friend Sydney to try new things. Sydney, you see, is taking part in an online game show/video game/ARG called Nerve, in which people film themselves taking increasingly risky dares for ever-growing sums of money, all while other people pay to watch them through their computers and phones and offer suggestions for dares. Nerve has become an underground hit, albeit a controversial one of questionable legality, especially given reports that people have died playing it. After watching her friends having fun without her, Vee gives in to peer pressure and decides to try the game out, and is given dares that start out more embarrassing and comical than anything, the game mining her social media in order to better find and test her limits. Teamed up with a mysterious, ruggedly handsome bad boy named Ian (Dave Franco), Vee climbs the leaderboards and soon becomes one of the most successful players, much to Sydney's consternation. Before long, however, as the dares go from funny to dangerous, Vee and Ian come to realize that the game isn't all roses, while Vee's mother (Juliette Lewis) and best friend Tommy try to find her and stop her from getting herself hurt -- or worse.

The biggest problems in this film chiefly stem from the fact that it's adapted from a young-adult novel, and as such, it suffers the problems that a lot of book adaptations do. Having admittedly never read the book, much of the characterization and background flavor in the film seems like it had been cut for time; even at a respectable 96 minutes, many of the supporting characters in Vee's life feel underwritten. It's most pronounced with Nancy, the mom played by Juliette Lewis who feels like she'd originally been a far more important character, but instead gets little to do here beyond worry about her daughter. Early on, we see that Nancy has grown overprotective of Vee following the death of Vee's brother, trying to convince her to attend a local college instead of her dream school all the way out in California. This seems like it will play an important role in the story, but Nancy largely disappears for most of the second act, along with the storylines related to her, only to return towards the end. Likewise, Tommy's unrequited crush on Vee is never really built on except to establish in one scene that it's why he distrusts Ian, an issue that's resolved more effortlessly than I would've liked, while the development involving Tommy knowing a group of computer hackers who, in the third act, could possibly hack into the game and save Vee from its machinations also feels like it was pulled out of thin air, given that we get only get one minor scene before then establishing that Tommy even knows these people. A major spat between Vee and another character towards the end of act two is also resolved in far too neat a manner for my liking. The things that both of them said to each other ought to have driven a much larger wedge between them, such that, even when they start working together during the climax, there should've still been some tension -- and perhaps the question of whether or not this character will actually pull through and help Vee. Many of these problems go back to the same fundamental issue: these plot threads feel like they'd been more fleshed out in earlier drafts of the script, and perhaps in the original story, but were cut for time. While Vee and Ian both get real arcs, other important supporting characters like the aforementioned Tommy and Nancy get only the barest, most paper-thin ones that feel lacking in characterization, while Sydney's development makes her out to be a one-note drama queen. By the third act, the deficiencies in the story and character departments start to create logical questions, making the film feel like it's rushing towards the ending. (I'll give the film credit, though: going by reviews on Goodreads, it seems that the script toned down some of Vee's more unlikable qualities.)

The fact that the movie is constantly moving and always entertaining, however, was enough to get me to push those thoughts to the back of my mind for much of its runtime. The two leads, Emma Roberts and Dave Franco, are both fun and likable as Vee and Ian. While it was tough for me to buy the 25-year-old Roberts as a high school student (especially after seeing her play a college student on Scream Queens), I did buy her as an uptight, vanilla introvert, one who's frustrated that her friends only keep her around because she's the "boring one" who makes them look cool. Franco, meanwhile, plays Ian a bit too obviously as a "bad boy", but once his character gets some development, I appreciated him a lot more. Neither was truly great, but both did good with the material that they were given, and while the supporting cast often got short shrift, their arcs and their chemistry together were interesting and remarkably solid. I also loved the direction and visual style on this, combining traditional visual styles, social media overlays, brief found-footage scenes, and first-person shots that worked especially well in putting me directly in the characters' shoes -- an effect that worked horrifyingly well in scenes where characters partake in stunts that put their lives on the line. It wasn't as wholly committed to its style as, say, Unfriended was, but it still managed to use it in interesting ways that mined a lot of fun out of the premise, dovetailing nicely with the themes that this film approaches. Ultimately, Nerve reveals itself as a commentary on online anonymity, one whose message is delivered in fairly blunt terms at the end. Just as, in real life, anonymity allows people to harass others from behind the safety of a computer screen, in Nerve it allows people to push others to behave in ridiculous manners for their entertainment without any consequences. I would've liked to see more background info on the game itself, something that could've been used to develop this metaphor further; who created Nerve, and why? As such, it feels fairly shallow and inconsequential; even if it has its heart in the right place, the story mostly falls apart at the end as it descended into hacker movie technobabble.

The Bottom Line:

"Shallow and inconsequential" is a good description of the film as a whole. It feels underwritten, and its pretensions towards social commentary don't add up to much in the end, but it's a fun, breezy teen thriller that almost never lets up. Recommended for a matinee.

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