Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman burst onto the scene with 2010’s Catfish, a controversial documentary that explored some of the darker aspects of social media. In the half-decade that has followed their debut, in which the filmmakers have gone on to make a pair of Paranormal Activity films and expanded Catfish into a TV series, social media has become a ubiquitous constant in our collective lives. With the fictional thriller NERVE, Joost and Schulman once again tap into the zeitgeist and ponder what damage can be done with the information we choose to share every day.
Based on the young adult novel by Jeanne Ryan, the film’s basic premise asks the question “Are you a Watcher or a Player?” These aren’t simply the online rules to the underground game Nerve, but more of a existential question for sidelined high school student Vee Delmonico (Emma Roberts). Goaded into action by her outgoing “player” friend Sydney (Emily Meade), Vee soon finds herself partaking in the game in real life and partnered up with a charming stranger (Dave Franco). As the game amps up, and the duo garner thousands of Watchers, they are met with an increasingly difficult set of dares and start to question the very nature of the game.
NERVE is the kind of film where you can’t help but root for the stars. As with David Fincher’s The Game, the all-encompassing nature of their quests builds its own reality logic we just simply go along with. The likeable personalities of Roberts and Franco drive much of the narrative, but we as the audience must acknowledge that it’s our own voyeurism that keeps us glued to the screen. As the dares escalate, so does the suspicion about the puppet masters behind the the scenes. Yet we can’t help but crave more ridiculous stunts and potential for danger, because that’s what we’ve been hardwired to do in the 21st century. The part of our brains that wants to look away during Tosh 2.0 or Jackass is just as fascinated with the bizarre spectacle of it all. That’s when NERVE has you lock, stock, and barrel.
Cinematographer Michael Simmonds doesn’t deal with subtlety, with his contrast turned all the way up, and this hyperkinetic visual energy mirrors the rapid pace of the film. Framed almost entirely within the brightly coloured social media paradigm, perhaps the only thing that will date this film is that it is so heavily reliant on the aesthetics of “near future” connectivity. This is a film about now, turning the selfie camera back on the audience and using the visual language of its viewers, another tool to convince us of the normalcy of this kind of observation.
NERVE is the kind of film that sits easily as a companion piece to Snowden or Catfish as a unambiguous warning about the pitfalls of the information age, and a sharp commentary on how dangerous a weapon that aggressive anonymity on the web can be. Given the huge spike in organised hate speech online, the target millennial audience needs this message now more than ever. Like The Hunger Games before it, there’s a parallel with our own “reality TV” obsessions. The only difference is that those films took the form to the extreme, using a dystopian future as a stand-in for our own follies. Joost and Schulman keep us firmly in a world that we recognise, making the connection all the more uncomfortable. Yet for all of our meta-awareness, we still stay watching to the very end, for as long as there is an audience there will be a demand for misfortune as entertainment.
2016 | US | DIR: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman | WRITERS: Jessica Sharzer (Based on novel by Jeanne Ryan) | CAST: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Juliette Lewis | DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow Films (AUS) | RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes