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.
As much as Schulman and Joost make a living off taking youthful proclivities to the bank, Nerve stealthily critiques a generation that eagerly surrenders personal information without pausing to consider the consequences. With one click, every detail of users’ lives, from their Facebook profiles to their bank accounts, are pooled into a game that takes advantage of their shared vulnerabilities — Sydney’s fear of heights, for example — while raiding their finances. At the same time, though, the film makes the game seem plausibly thrilling for Players and Watchers alike, operating as a kind of crowdsourced apparatus for youthful rebellion. As Vee and Ian are whisked through the city, accepting crazier and crazier dares, their partnership is like a fast-tracked romance, with the Watchers acting as right-swiping matchmakers.
Nerve doesn’t invest nearly as much creative energy in its characters. Vee and Sydney are so narrowly defined along good-girl/bad-girl lines that when they finally come to blows, their taunts sound like single-sentence casting descriptions. The supporting players, Ian excluded, are just as hastily drawn, with Juliette Lewis clocking in as a single mother who’s pressuring Vee to stay home for college, Miles Heizer as a computer-geek friend who pines for her, and a whole network of young hackers who gather like the Coney Island revolutionaries on Mr. Robot. Schulman and Joost cover up the sketchiness of the writing with a wall-to-wall pop soundtrack that’s slathered over the action like a hastily assembled Spotify playlist.
Though the ending surrenders to a tsk-tsk-ing morality play that turns on the mob the game (and the film) has so smartly orchestrated, Nerve is the rare virtual thriller that understands how social media actually works and the addictive little subcultures that can spin out of it. It’s easy to be cynical about Schulman and Joost as gimmicky exploiters of the zeitgeist, but in Sharzer’s script, they’ve channeled the illicit excitement of Truth or Dare into a digital form and turned up the gas. They’ve made a fine pitch for a studio and perhaps a better one for Silicon Valley.