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What Does a Teen Audience Want?

‘Nerve’ has a (surprisingly traditional) theory

Lionsgate
Lionsgate

In 1986’s Pretty in Pink, it’s a boy named Blane, whose presidential mane and unironic blazer chic are pure complements to his Reagan-era egotistical charm. In She’s All That (1999) it’s a boy named Zack Siler, whose cruel romancing of the unpopular Laney Boggs is a power move, the best way to save face after losing his girlfriend to that decade’s newest species of Romeo: a reality TV star. In Nerve, the new movie by Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, it’s a guy named Ian (Dave Franco), who rides a motorcycle, likes girls with tattoos, and has a dark past, a romance-ruining secret. The internet is to blame.

Is it as nerdy as it sounds? Yes and no. The movie is about a game called Nerve, in which online users must choose to be either Watchers or Players — either the voyeurs paying competitors to complete sick challenges or the contestants themselves, who livestream each challenge to audiences of thousands. The stakes: money and, of course, instant fame. As they play, hearts explode from the corner of their phone screens, like on Periscope, and a leaderboard ranks them against other local Players by the number of Watchers tuned into their feeds. All of this to watch kids be assholes? It’s “like Truth or Dare without the truth,” one teen explains. But a regular game of Truth or Dare likely won’t make you insta-famous for eating dog food, like a Player with the handle art_thot69, nor for shoplifting $3,995 couture that looks like encrusted mermaid slime.

Nor, I would think, can a horde of anonymous, consensus-driven voyeurs pull you into a fabricated, death-defying romance. When the motorcyclist hunk Ian and the shy, artsy Vee (Emma Roberts) first kiss, in a quiet diner, surrounded by truckers and elderly rubbernecks, it’s as strangers: She’s doing it on a dare from Nerve. And he’s holding a copy of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse because, as the love engineers of the Nerve audience know, that’s Vee’s favorite book. It’s less meet-cute than the Players getting played, like characters in a video game. Players surrender details from their half-forgotten digital lives — overstuffed Amazon wish lists, regrettably still-tagged Facebook photos — to the game, thus to the Watchers, who in this case use those details to fold the comparably cute Ian and Vee into a genre romance. It’s a modern tech parable, nostalgically retrofitted to plot turns you know well: a light speed–quick courtship, catty backstabbing and hot mic’d shit talking, friendzoned “nice guy” longing from the wings — you name it.

Granted, Ian and Vee, as played by Franco and Roberts, are characters you wouldn’t see anywhere but a tepid teen love story to begin with. He’s a sunglasses emoji; she’s a blush. When a dare lands them near-naked in an expensive clothing store (long story), the scene makes a point of showing that their pale, exposed, Hollywood-fit bodies do not touch, that their eyes do not meet, as if outright sexual chemistry would threaten his coolness or her likability. They’re Disney cute and just as boring, which serves one of the movie’s more titillating ideas: this old-hat teen drama? It’s what the audience — the gang of Watchers — wants. Nerve is a movie about a hidden gamer public making a live, improvised, storybook romance of two fellow teenagers’ lives. It’s a movie with all the hairpin emotional turns of the genre, structured as a series of increasingly stupefying dares that catapult its characters as high as construction cranes over midtown Manhattan (really), mimicking the emotional flights the audience craves.

It’s the Watchers, then, with their escalating demands and comparably high-stakes rewards, that make the movie what it is. That’s not what you’d guess from the premise, which foretells a movie about the perils of cheaply earned internet fame. Instead, we get a movie about — sigh — Us. The livestreamed POVs and transparent touch screens that put us in the driver’s seat, positioning us as the Watchers, are a constant reminder that we’re the implicit subject of the movie — and in fact, for much of Nerve’s runtime, this is almost an exciting proposition. After all, it’s the Watchers who, per Joost and Schulman’s neon-lit reimagining of New York City, make the movie feel like a clubby playground for young people’s worst, most spectacular impulses. Nerve almost feels like a Purge movie, but instead of getting assaulted, you’re dared to death.

Deathly peril comes pretty late, however. Most of the movie is a sweetly adventurous blind date with just enough imminent fucking-up at its edges to make up for the lack of actual chemistry or sex. Jury’s out on whether the movie sustains the intrigue once the other shoe drops — that is, when Franco and Roberts lambast the audience with the freeze-dried morality you might hear from concerned parents on CNN. There’s actually no rule that only teens and early twentysomethings can play the game, so perhaps it’s telling that they’re the only people in the movie biting the bait. The movie’s message is, putting it generously, a rote oversimplification of media and youth. Social media–bred voyeurism can ruin lives: had you heard? It’s an unnecessary moral turn. Then again, that it takes so long for things to get weird in the movie, that we dwell for so long in the pure excitement of it all, hints at the movie’s built-in romanticism, too. There’s a disconnect worth pondering: On the real internet, our internet, would kids this good have had it good for so long?