The origins of Nerve probably depend on who you ask. Some will tell you that the film is adapted from the 2012 novel of the same name by Jeanne Ryan. And, strictly speaking, that’s true. But upon seeing the initial trailer, I was reminded of another film I watched (and really liked) not too long ago starring the late Anton Yelchin called 13 Sins. That film was released in 2014, but it’s an American take on a film from Thailand called 13 Beloved or 13: Game of Death. That film came out in 2006 and is apparently itself based on a comic book called 13th Quiz Show. I’m sure most – if not all – involved with Nerve would cry, “Coincidence!” and maybe it is, but the similarities of the two properties are awfully similar.
Nerve, however, has a handful of talent that no version of the other project had. Firstly, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost are co-directors. They are the ones who brought the world Catfish. And I’m referring to the groundbreaking documentary that clued film lovers around the world into the meaning of that term long before the two developed it into an MTV series for the masses. Following that, the pair dabbled in the horror genre, directing both Paranormal Activity 3 and Paranormal Activity 4. These films were a marked improvement over the lackluster Paranormal Activity 2 and suggested that good things were in their future.
Dave Franco assumes a leading role in Nerve but he’s sharing the spotlight with the underrated Emma Roberts. Franco is a talented it-guy, following in the footsteps of his better-known brother, James. He’s been largely pigeonholed into supporting comedic roles, so Nerve is a bit of a departure for him. Roberts has been able to show more versatility throughout her relatively short career and has recently shined on Fox’s Scream Queens, completely stealing every scene she’s in. She’s been able to distance herself from the shadow of her aunt Julia, who has been a household name for decades.
So, we have an interesting mix of elements in Nerve. Lots of fresh, up-and-coming talent but a concept that has already been done – and done well – albeit on a much smaller scale. As the movie ended, I likened the Nerve/13 Sins comparison to another popular one – that of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. Much as the Hunger Games series did with Battle Royale, Nerve takes the concept already explored in 13 Sins and amps up the scale, ultimately crafting it into its own unique story. So, while the basic premise and backbones of the two films are the same, the narrative, characterization, and themes of Nerve are its own.
Firstly, when compared to 13 Sins, Nerve is bigger, sexier, and funnier. It shoots for a broader audience and it should succeed in that effort. But I want to discuss Nerve as its own entity and not constantly put it in the shadow of its 2014 counterpart. Because, while that film came first, Nerve has something completely distinctive to say.
While 13 Sins (I know, I know, sorry! Last mention, I hope! It’s really tough not to draw those comparisons, if you’ve seen that earlier film!) is a small, intimate horror story, Nerve is a broad, sweeping thriller. In the former film, the in-film game is completely secret and isolated whereas in Nerve, it’s a social media fad growing in popularity by the second. Yet, despite the magnitude of the story, the film manages to tell a very personal story along the way. Emma Roberts’s Vee is the primary protagonist and she’s created to be admirable and likeable in every way. While the film never dives deep into serious melodrama, Vee is given enough of a backstory and a social/familial circle to flesh her out and ensure that the audience has a very clear picture of who she is and what motivates her. I was pleasantly surprised by this, as I expected the film to tell, and not show (which you might know by now is a pet peeve of mine), these aspects of her life in order to jump right in and get to Dave Franco’s Ian as quickly as possible. Laying that groundwork alone is enough to raise the quality of the film far above what most people will anticipate.
The characters are smart (or at least not actively of below-average intelligence) and well-meaning, and I found this also adds to the appeal of the film. There are some characters with an air of mystery surrounding them, and I won’t necessarily include them in this generalization in order to preserve the filmgoing experience for you , but most of the figures in the film are complex, flawed, and believable. They react in realistic ways to their ordeals as established by the rules of the world that they inhabit.
And that world isn’t very far removed from our own, which just so happened to be the entire message of the film. On the surface, Nerve addresses modern society’s social media obsessions but, when digging deeper, the film is really a commentary on that sect of online personalities who fail to recognize that those they interact and cross paths with online are very real and very human. These are the people who spend their time leaving insulting, negative comments on every message board post they can find. They are the people who tease and bully other strangers – often without provocation – to get themselves over with their brainless friends. These are the people who send insulting messages to celebrities through Twitter or post joking Facebook statuses when a celebrity dies. These people are mental midgets who aren’t advanced enough to comprehend that their actions and words carry weight and consequence and that their relative anonymity doesn’t absolve them of responsibility. These are the people that Nerve wants to address. And I applaud the effort. I wish I believed it would make a difference.
My biggest problem with the film came with one of the rules of the Nerve game. Basically (and I guess this could be considered a mild spoiler, but not really. It’s established right off the bat and I will not be discussing how, or if, it comes into play in the film. Regardless, the rule makes little sense.), the third rule is to not tell the police about the game. Yet, the game is a huge phenomenon and there’s no way that the police wouldn’t already know about it and also know exactly who is participating. The game itself thrives on people being aware of it, so this is a huge contradiction that I’ve been unable to reconcile.
Despite that, I found myself enjoying Nerve significantly more than I expected to. Roberts shines and Franco charms (also, Orange is the New Black fans can keep their eyes open for both Poussey and Soso), the challenges of the game are intense and entertaining, the pace is quick and fun, and the film makes a very relevant statement. Even without the latter, it’s easy to be swept into the film and forget the real world for about 90 minutes. I was worried that the 13 Sins similarities would be insurmountable for me, but this falls into the idea that I’ve discussed before where someone (in this case, author Jeanne Ryan) was perhaps exposed to an idea and thought, “What if that idea had been explored this way, instead?” and then went and did just that. And that’s okay. Nerve is not a direct lift of that previous story and even has some extra enjoyable elements that that initial take on the idea does not. My suggestion? See both Nerve and 13 Sins and decide for yourself. And, maybe, you might just enjoy each of them based on their own merits, exactly as I did.
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