I’m (Video) Game — Everything Old Is New Again
Dir. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, USA, 2016, 96 minutes
Nerve is a thriller adapted from the 2010 YA (that’s Young Adult) novel by Jeanne Ryan. It amalgamates elements from all sorts of new new things – the internet, video games, the mobile device, the instant messaging of moving pictures, the over-layering of images and perception.
This is teen entertainment, straight from the marketing department, directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, who a few years ago brought you the ingenious and charming Catfish, the documentary about the search for a person known only as a web presence to its searcher. I was struck by the cleverness of that film, produced by Andrew Jarecki, although I was not the only critic who thought that it was a scripted narrative confection rather than an exposition of a true story. Yes, just about every movie is a scripted confection, but that’s a subject for another time.
Now the pair of auteurs has gone down-market and down-age, and given us Nerve, set on the streets of New York at night. Let’s just say that this is the other extreme of the spectrum from Taxi Driver. The only youth experience that kids won’t get here is sex itself – since showing too much would risk an R rating and put the film out of the hands of the teen and pre-teen audience that it seeks. You still get thrills in Nerve, like scenes of its motorcyclist protagonist, Ian (Dave Franco), driving blind up Park Avenue with accent-free Staten Island girl Vee (Emma Roberts) on the back. (Here’s my interview with the pleasant and unaffected Dave Franco that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle.)
Yet if there’s one thrill that comes close to sex for kids these days, it’s shopping, and Nerve takes you to the belly of the beast when Vee steps off Ian’s motorcycle at Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue – epater les hauts bourgeois? – where they end up in their underwear after their clothes are stolen, and the duo dashes from overpriced department to overpriced department to find an exit. If that doesn’t bring the crowds in, I don’t know what will, although Bergdorf’’s seems a little old and powdery for the Teen Vogue crowd’s My Stuff column. Think of the long scene in A Shot in the Dark with Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in the nudist camp. Clever. Nerve isn’t.
But old and dusty may be the key here in this teen consumer cocktail. The video game around which the story layers its consumer products is a competition of heightening challenges, which it dares characters to take on, and then pays them each time they win. Is the suggestion here that people will do anything for money, or that the near-minimum wages paid to kids are so low that they’re driven by scarcity (and by the price of those product placement devices on-screen) to put their consumer-ized lives at risk?
Remember death-defying drag racing, in the early days of movies aimed at teenagers? Remember the crescendo of Rebel Without a Cause, the ur-teen movie? The target audience of Nerve won’t, and probably won’t think of googling it. I dare you to watch this one.
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