When their documentary Catfish premiered at Sundance, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost sparked a discussion over the ethics of non-fiction filmmaking, with some believing the “documentary” label itself belonged in scare-quotes. Their subsequent MTV reality series of the same name explored similar stories as the film with more polish and arranged drama than insight, but then Schulman and Joost don’t seem to care about such persnickety rules. They care more about creating viral moments, building movies and TV shows around clickable conceits that have the potential of getting passed around on social media. It’s not for nothing that they were tasked to direct the third and fourth Paranormal Activity movies, adding to a franchise that turned record profits off vid-cam minimalism and a hashtag.
Schulman and Joost’s new techno-thriller Nerve ingeniously reinvents The Game for the age of Snapchat and Periscope, with the corporate nefariousness of David Fincher’s film replaced by dark-web hackers and peer-to-peer voyeurs and sadists. Written by Jessica Sharzer, the film’s chief strength is an online game that’s been so well thought-through that it’s surprising it doesn’t exist in the real world. Nerve is described as a game of Truth or Dare without “truth” as an option. Users can sign up as either a “Player” or a “Watcher.” Players are sent on a series of dares of escalating risk and reward, with cash prizes awarded to those who accept a mission and complete it on time, without “bailing or failing,” and record their adventures on their phone. Watchers pay a fee to suggest dares and follow their favorite Players, who rack up points based on how many people are tracking them.
Into this virtual arena steps Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts), a stock shy-girl type who snaps photographs for the high school yearbook and never acts on her secret crush for a football player. His best friend is a stock wild-girl type, Sydney (Emily Meade), who pressures Vee to come out of her shell and join Nerve as a Player. Vee’s first dare, to make out with a stranger for five seconds for $100, turns out to be an arranged partnership, pairing her with another Player, Ian (Dave Franco), and sending them together on a wild night that gets more lucrative and dangerous as their viral celebrity spikes. As Vee and Ian are incentivized to moving ahead to the finals, the source of this online phenomenon and the safety of its participants gets called into question.