Nerve is a solid-enough look into social media gladiator games

Nerve is the most unfortunate (in the most literal meaning of that word) sort of techno-thriller, the sort that I’m sure was about five minutes ahead of history when it was being written and became ten minutes behind by the time it actually hit theaters.

The concept of a smart-phone app that let us broadcast our going-ons to the world for the pleasure of the validation of others seemed a logical progression when the film was being developed in 2014, as was the concept of a socialized augmented reality game hinging, again, on our social media and our smart phones. Now it’s 2016 and Periscope and Pokemon Go are parts of life rather than ideas in the pitch folder of an investor.

But them’s the breaks, which means Nerve is resting on being precariously relevant and a metaphor for “The Way Things Are.” Fortunately for Nerve, it seems to rest on the crucial advantage of being made by actual young people, who seem to have an understanding of not only “The Way Things Are” but more crucially “Why Things Are The Way They Are.”

Plus, it helps there’s a few ideas in its filmmaking to keep the whole thing feeling as young as its subject matter.

The film comes to us from Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman from a book by Jeanne Ryan. It centers on Venus (Emma Roberts), mostly called Vee, a passive young girl who’s introduced into the world of Nerve by her friend Sydney (Emily Meade). One part Periscope, one part Truth or Dare, Nerve is a game where “watchers” give dares to “players”, largely acts of stupidity or violence.

When Vee is dared to kiss a stranger, she ends up meeting Ian (Dave Franco), a popular player with a mysterious past. The two are paired up as they descend into the final night of the game (I think, it seems like it started and ended all rather quickly and the timeline of this thing was never made really clear), our pair plunges into defying death and figuring out the fundamental dark heart at the core of this game.

Nerve is an undeniably propulsive little film, never failing to keep moving forward or taking some sort of action with the camera or the pretty people that populate its frames or throwing up some technology for us to identify. Joost and Schulman are the directors of Catfish and it seems that cutting their teeth there seems to have at least given them a few ideas about how technology works.

It’s informed a filmmaking style that, while not necessarily more frantic than the era of MTV-moviemaking cuts, seems to feel as sensory-overloading as the social media it’s based in. There’s always something happening with colors or actors and it’s not just the motion anymore, but the content. When the action by necessity has to slow down, some piece of electronica or pop blasts in and makes sure the audience isn’t getting too bored.

But that actually sort of works for the film. It’s trying to reflect a very specific time in a very specific era. It gets how a modern teen life works, especially with the added pressure of social media and the ever-present eyes of the world. It’s overwhelming, and that’s kind of in its favor.

It means it’s a little inconsistent, anything that’s going so constantly would be. Nerve is delirious cool and silliness in equal measures. For every thrilling challenge and stylish flair, there’s just a bit that seems shoehorned in for what they think hits close to home with the teens. It’s bad Young Adult lit or it’s David Finchers’ The Game for Instagram. There’s not a whole lot of in-between and I like that. I’d rather have a film swing for the fences and not work than play it safe and be traditionally fine.

It reminds me a lot of last year’s We Are Your Friends, also from a filmmaker among the Catfish team, Max Joseph. That film knew how to use its style and how to use a relentlessly modern sensibility to hit something close to home, though that film was far less successful.

I’ll credit Nerve’s relative success to the fact that it has an idea about what lies at the heart of social media, besides the anonymity, though that is a major point of the film. It comes, perhaps none too subtly in an ending set in a colosseum.

For Joost and Schulman, the hateful and anonymous part of the internet, the part that drives the game Nerve, is thirsty for blood because the internet has made it accessible and still so rare. It’s a thrill for the human psyche that still hasn’t completely gone away, and yet the internet has put it at our fingertips. And not like sex, which is just a click away. Real, live violence is a hunger that the game Nerve can satiate.

It’s also a hunger that anonymous threats and fantasies can satisfy. In other words, Nerve is a film about the worst tendencies humanity has allowed to be fed by the internet. Hunger for violence and stimulation is the heart of the worst internet behavior.

That’s the kind of thought that makes Nerve a little more than your standard dull techno-thriller. An idea or two in its head that makes it largely successful, because it has an anchor to pull it along. Brilliance? No. But definitely something more to chew on than expected.

Grade: B+