In their essay “Cinema-Ideology-Criticism”, Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Paul Narboni speak of a category of cinema which is politically progressive in content, but whose politics can be discounted due to the generic and status quo supporting form. This category is exemplified in Nerve, a film which, just like your friend who speaks about how others “don’t understand”, manages to talk for 96 minutes without ever actually saying anything.
Nerve involves a bit of world building, creating a New York City wherein all the teenagers are busy playing a game of dares known as Nerve, where acting on dumb dares earns the player money and fame. As Vee (Emma Roberts) and Ian (Dave Franco) play the game, they soon realize that it is not as innocent as it (does not) seem.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish, Paranormal Activity 3) use this premise to question the audience’s obsession with – and reliance on – social media through plot devices which deal with online anonymity, the differences between physical space and digital space, and how far someone will go to be “internet famous”. Of course, these questions have been asked time and time again, and the concept itself has almost become a genre all its own (this concept could be argued to predate internet culture). Nerve does bring in some new concepts, such as the somewhat inventive ways it deals with internet comment sections and participatory culture in general. Unfortunately, the film undercuts its own message formalistically by glamourizing the very culture it is questioning. The world of Nerve is represented in vibrant colours where the people are beautiful and the acts are fun. The film frequently forgets that it is supposed to be social satire and reverts to its teen rom-com roots. Once you add in the absolutely preachy and blatant third act, it becomes clear that this is a film whose political awareness does not go past a high school understanding.
There is another interesting – possibly unintentional – thought process running through Nerve: there seems to be a strong focus on the co-option of black culture by white youths; whether it is Roberts rapping along to the Wu-Tang Clan or the general Worldstar/”do it for the vine” (two well-known cases of black phenomena co-opted by white youths) sensibility of the plot. Adding the fact that the only people of colour in the film play the roles of sidekicks, this is either a clever insight into the role of black people in the innovation of pop culture or a gross oversight.
Either way, the truth is this: Nerve is not a great film or a smart film or an exceptional film. It is, however, frequently entertaining and pulsing with vibrant colours. If you’re looking for a study of internet culture in the 21st century, look elsewhere. However, if you’re near a multiplex and you’re looking to escape the heat, you could do much worse than the mindlessly entertaining Nerve.
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Shahbaz Khayambashi: @Shakhayam