Directors: Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost
Ah, the dark web. A place where an indiscriminate number of cyber bullies bask in the neon glory of serverless gaming, spending countless hours watching teenagers drive from Staten Island to Manhattan. With 2016’s NERVE, directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost follow up the success of 2010’s CATFISH and 2011’s PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 with perhaps the most bonkers, balls-to-the-wall piece of popcorn entertainment this summer. Don’t expect social relevance here, this is as much a smart film as CATFISH was a real documentary. If there’s a movie that captures your parent’s idea of how POKÉMON GO works, it’s NERVE.
Following Vee, an inhibited high school senior who finds herself at the top of a candy-colored online leaderboard for a “truth or dare, minus the truth” championship, NERVE tows a fine line between cringey, asinine shlock and genuinely thrilling drama. Boosted by a charismatic performance from Dave Franco, and two angst-laden, cathartic characterizations by Emma Roberts and Juliette Lewis, NERVE finds itself in a surprisingly competent, campy middleground. This is the sweet and sour of millennial cinema, a tried and true B-movie in every sense of the word, equal parts obnoxious as it is endearing.
I can’t even fund my Kickstarter and some bozo is paying a girl to wear dresses
In fact, NERVE is so bewilderingly engaging that one often forgets the cringe-worthy line readings from co-star Miles Heizer. This is not to throw blame directly at the actor himself, but rather at Schulman and Joost’s absurd interpretation of hacker lingo. Think WATCH DOGS’s aesthetic, CRANK’s momentum, and JOHN HUGHES’s teen sensibilities rolled into a greasy, Manhattan, midnight shaorma. Nobody really talks like a teenager here. Roberts is conveniently knowledgeable about servers and hacking, and (yes, I shit you not) Machine Gun Kelly puts on a performance so mentally unstable that he feels like he’s been siphoned straight from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.
And somehow the charm and thrill of the experience salvages any real complaint I could utter. NERVE is never realistic, but it isn’t concerned with being so in the first place. It’s technologically obsessed, but also completely illiterate in its understanding of the internet, much like last year’s UNFRIENDED. It plays into certain abstract representations of a concerned parent’s envisioning of the World Wide Web. Radiating with oversaturation, NERVE’s world is a hyperlink amalgamation of an absurd, improbable conceit and narrative contrivances, but much like any great blockbuster, the appeal of its ensemble keeps the viewer strapped in. After all, you don’t get on a rollercoaster to be intellectually stimulated.
“The Dark Web is like a carousel babe; once you get on, it’s an endless spiral”
Though this may very well be a nitpick, it feels strange that NERVE, much like UNFRIENDED, makes similar mistakes in showing how apps work, as if the audience wouldn’t notice. Facetime glitches are used to mask cutaways, cameras edit between who is talking, characters that aren’t holding phones are somehow filming themselves, and every laptop in this universe is apparently a touchscreen. But as long as one is willing to take the lacking authenticity with a grain of salt, NERVE can be enjoyed as the wild ride that it is. A thrill, that in some ways feels like it’s been visualized by your technologically inept grandmother.
And while it’s valid to utter a certain amount of critique towards the film’s try-hard attempt at making its viewers learn something about the dangers of internet anonymity, it never falls to the cuckold levels of ineptitude that were displayed in Jason Reitman’s MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN back in 2014. I did leave the theatre feeling a little cheated by Schulman and Joost’s insistence on incorporating a contrived, plothole-ridden climax. But in the end I realized that it’s admittedly ridiculous to complain about the credulity of a film that’s fundamentally structured around a community of people who are willing to pay a girl 2,500 dollars to walk through a Nordstrom in her underwear. It’s silly, it’s spastic, but damn if it isn’t captivating. NERVE’s quality is almost entirely in the eye of the beholder. But if it were up to me, this would be the go-to summer blockbuster of 2016.