Along with Viral and Catfish, Nerve makes a trilogy of films about digital culture directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman – and of the three, it’s probably the most powerful. Set in New York, it revolves around Vee (Emma Roberts), a teenager living on Staten Island. Having just graduated high school, Vee is keen to spread her wings, and harbours secret ambitions to attend college at CalArts, but is physically and emotionally trapped by her mother Nancy (Juliette Lewis), who not only insists on her attending college in Manhattan, but staying on Staten Island instead of dorming in the city. Right from the outset, this marks Nerve as a descendant of Mike Nichols’ Working Girl, and Vee as a descendant of Melanie Griffith’s Tess McGill, a lineage that becomes more and more direct as the film proceeds. Like Tess, Vee is afraid that staying on Staten Island is a kind of arrested development, trapping her in a high school mentality rather than allowing her to discover herself through study and independence. Like Working Girl, too, the commute between Staten Island and Manhattan is associated with all Vee’s yearnings for upward mobility, and her longing for something beyond her everyday routine. Throughout the film, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and its use of the lighthouse as a symbol for our deepest desires, is regularly used as way of capturing this longing gaze that Vee directs across New York Harbor towards Manhattan.
Vee’s big break comes with a new computer game called Nerve, which she discovers early in the film. In fact, it is more like the game discovers her, since the film actually begins within the game, introducing us to Vee and her friends from the perspective of their social media accounts, which are all saturated with promotions for Nerve from the very beginning. In essence, Nerve divides its users into two groups of people – players and watchers. If you choose to be a player, all your tastes, interests and posts are migrated over from your other social media accounts, and then used to formulate dares that are also partly shaped by watchers. If performed successfully, these dares generate cash, although it is unclear whether this comes from watchers, or from the owners of Nerve itself. In Nerve, Vee senses, she may have found a way to fulfil her dream of social mobility, and bridge the aspirational gap between Staten Island and Manhattan, and she signs up as a player, despite the fact that most people in her friendship circle would likely have pegged her as a watcher.
What Vee discovers very quickly is that Nerve is really more of a social media platform than a game. The first step in signing up as a player involves giving permission for Nerve to absorb all the material from her previous social platforms in order to discern the best possible dares, evoking a social media environment in which all the things that comprise character – tastes, interests, reflections – are now only important insofar as they can be used to monetise risk. Nerve also reflects a social landscape in which followers and friends have converged, and followers have become more important than friends, as has occurred on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and most other social media platforms. Conversely, Nerve speaks to a social media environment where the difference between watchers and players, or posters and followers, has become much starker. There is no point in being a player, or poster, Nerve suggests, unless you can guarantee followers that don’t and won’t know you. While Nerve might advertise itself as “truth or dare without the truth,” most of the dares involve some degree of self-disclosure, if only because they force the player to disclose the fears, anxieties and desires that make the dare meaningful for them in the first place. More specifically, the dares tend to involve players disclosing something uncomfortable to the audience, to another player, or to a member of the public, often relating to their own body.
Vee’s progression through Nerve quickly takes her from Staten Island to Manhattan, and then deeper into the substrate of Manhattan, thanks in part to Ian (Dave Franco), a fellow player that she meets along the way, and who teams up with her for double dares. In the process, it becomes clear that Nerve may well be the millennial media platform par excellence. While millennials tend to be stereotyped as affected urbanites, they are really more suburban in character, only over-identifying with certain urbane modes of behavior because inner cities have been denied to them as a result of gentrification, inflation and precarity, along with the baby boomer stranglehold on the real estate market. Nerve allows millennials to experience tAmerican city cores that are normally cut off to them in short intensive bursts, by way of their dares, with arguably more intensity than anyone who has the luxury to build their daily routines around these privileged urban spaces. Nearly all of Vee and Ian’s dares involve exposing their bodies as mediating surfaces for Manhattan, just as their dawning romance becomes a way to mediate the romance of the city to each other.
That breathless apprehension of the city core gives Nerve a very 80s vibe, with Rob Simonsen’s soundtrack often recalling Tangerine Dream’s score to Risky Business, especially during a sublime sequence when Vee is dared to try on clothes at Bergdorf Goodman. Gradually, Vee and Ian’s dares form a flashback to those 80s generations who were the last to really envisage the downtown cores of American cities as spaces that they could remake in their own image. Once again, Risky Business feels like a point of reference here, especially the concluding scene, when Joel (Tom Cruise) and Lana (Rebecca DeMornay) gaze out at the twinkling Chicago skyline from a city park, somehow aware that the future of the inner city is in their hands, but that they may well be the last to experience this sense of futurity as well, a situation encapsulated in Tangerine Dream’s mournful mixture of futurism and nostalgia. In one sublime sequence after another, the austere neoliberal cityscapes of Nerve melt into a series of involuted interiors that draw upon a darker, denser and dreamier kind of city, one indebted to Joel and Lana’s vision, just as the look of Nerve itself is futuristic, but also harks back to the earlier and more unregulated days of the Internet at the same time.
That nostalgic futurity, or nostalgia for the future, coalesces here around the Dark Web, which is presented as both the origin and the final destination of Nerve, the place where it is managed but also the logical venue for disseminating the most extreme dares. At the same time, the Dark Web is presented both as a descendant of the early days of the Internet, but also as the place where the internet is still most exploratory and open to the future. For both those reasons, the Dark Web becomes synonymous with the parts of the city that millennials are able to inhabit, and the furtive ways they inhabit them, that cut against the neoliberal logic of the city itself. As Joost and Schulman seek out of the neon-clad parts of the city that resemble the visual style of Nerve, from the entrance to the Staten Island ferry to the neon sculpture at Bleeker Street Station, this Dark Web cityscape tends to either burrow underground or soar far above the city, moving higher and lower with each new dare. Whether it is a ladder balanced between two buildings, or a crane towering from the top of a skyscraper, Nerve prefers to be underground or high above ground, but rarely asks the players to perform dares that place them at street level in any stable or sustained way.
Interestingly, that is also the spatial logic of superhero films, which tend to oscillate between underground lairs and the tops of buildings, but rarely embrace the street as a space in itself. One of the things that the Marvel and DC Universes have in common is the way they denude the American street, reducing it to the barest and blandest of canvases for battles that are nearly always aerial or subterranean. Like those films, Nerve seems aware that while millennials might seem fascinated by urbane street life, this is only because the street, as a unit of American urban experience, works so hard to repel millennials. In New York, in particular, most downtown streets are fronted by upscale boutiques, exclusive restaurants and, above all, the opaque indifference of luxury housing, to the point where street life has become a period effect for millennials, perhaps explaining why they are so invested in the pastiche of older urban affectations. Like superheroes, Nerve offers a line of flight from the street, with the difference that this line of flight can be experienced by any player, and in fact needs to be experienced by as many players as possible for Nerve to function, as if the superhero had long since exhausted their figurative burden of providing it.
That spatial logic culminates with Staten Island, which is gradually framed as the apotheosis of this aerial-underground space, and imagined as a borough that somehow floats above the city, but is also submerged deep beneath it. The final dare takes place at Battery Weed, near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, where Vee and Ian are dared to duel to the death with pistols, distilling Nerve to the most basic and traditional unit of social brinksmanship. With masked watchers piling up the walls of the fort to see who wins the dare, Battery Weed feels elevated and submerged at the same time, as Staten Island turns out to be the real destination of Nerve. Rather than invest New York with the accessibility of Staten Island, the film ends up investing Staten Island with the eventfulness of New York City, since even Nerve is ultimately incapable of helping millennials reclaim the city in any permanent way. Instead, they have to retroject some of the city’s energy back into the suburbs, and reclaim the suburbs as yuppies once reclaimed the inner city. Joost and Schulman signal this final departure from Working Girl in the montage sequence that precedes the fight at Battery Weed, which features the camera flying around the Statue of Liberty in a quotation of the opening credits of Mike Nichols’ version. In this version, however, it is evening, it is the end of the film, and the camera eventually heads towards Staten Island, rather than Manhattan.
Like Search Party, Nerve thus suggests that there is now a fundamental impediment to millennials mapping urban space. In fact, the devolution of mapping metaphors is the only way that millennials can understand urban spaces that have economically excluded them beyond all reprieve. Nerve condenses this devolution to spectacle, providing players and users with short bursts of urban experience that orient them to the city core only by drastically disorienting their ability to conceptualise or map the urban core, typically by mediating the urban core through the surface of their body in increasingly extreme ways. While dares are theoretically possible anywhere, all of the montage sequences in the film, which evoke the broad sweep of dares, emphasise this urban backdrop. It’s no coincidence either that dares tend to start off geolocative, and turn physiological, with players told to go to some urban space (“Watchers will find you on the F train”) and then do something peculiar with their body within that space. Within this diminished mapping milieu, characters are as liable to be mapped by the city as to map the city, and the dares capitalise upon this, most spectacularly in a sequence in which Ian is dared to reach sixty miles per hour, blindfolded, on his motorcycle, while Vee directs him through the Manhattan streets.
This scene made me realise that a map is typically something that demands to be both seen and touched, whether as a physical object to be held, or as a portable device that contains a digital rendition. During this ride, however, mapping is dissociated into Vee’s visual field, and Ian’s tactile field, as he steers the motorcycle blindfolded while she gives him instructions about intersections, other vehicles and the speed he is travelling. Trusting in the city to remap itself around them (or in Nerve to remap the city around them), this sublime trajectory allows Vee and Ian to momentarily graft the frisson of social media, and of people watching social media, onto the topography of the inner city. In the process, the inner city, and its relation to the suburbs, becomes topographically incoherent, as Vee and Ian seem to enter the Holland Tunnel, only to emerge again in front of Grand Central Station. Yet that incoherence is what allows them to momentarily remap the city in their own image, looping all the energy of the millennials that they represent into a vision of the city that has already absorbed and accommodated all their suburban energy and urban aspiration. It is in this space that romance first blossoms between Ian and Vee as well, since the romantic conquest of the city, and the romantic conquest of each other through the city, can only occur when the city is fractured and reassembled in this way. Indeed, Nerve encourages players and users to see the city as a series of montage ingredients, and this scene forms the start of a montage sequence that persists, with only a few pauses, until the end of the film.
Beyond millennials, then, Nerve evokes something montage-like about the pace of everyday life in America more generally. While Nerve may seem attuned to the post-cinematic age, its dares often tend to play as free-floating cinematic scenes, just because so many of the most canonical cinematic moments involve characters taking a risk of some kind. Online, users are divided into watchers and players, but in physical space they look more like lead actors and extras, remediating a series of cinematic tropes that are now dissociated from any one film or narrative, but whose cinematic sense of risk seems all the more evocative for that. Once again, this gives the film a bit of an 80s vibe, as Joost and Schulman quote all manner of 80s movie moments that testified to the transformative power of risk. Unifying digital millennials and older generations in uncanny and quite moving ways, this free-floating cinematic referentiality is encapsulated in the scene when Vee meets Ian in a dinner. Dared to sing Roy Orbison’s “You Got It,” he moves from booth to booth at the diner, crooning to people who are as generationally remote from him as Orbison was from the decade that made this song his final big hit. Yet the older folks just sing along with Ian, as if it’s a movie they’ve seen before, or a movie trope that they know as well as they know themselves, in what could quite easily be a scene out of an 80s teen movie, an outtake from Ferris Bueller.
As scenes like this suggest, Nerve is ultimately a romance – a romance between millennials, a romance between millennials and the city, and a romance between millennials and the cityscapes from which they have been disenfranchised and excluded. The catch is that this romance can only occur through a futuristic lens, or a retrofuturistic lens, since part of the oddness of Nerve is that is it quite conceivable, in a slightly modified format, as the premise of an 80s film as well. Far from being a critique of millennial risk-taking, Joost and Schulman are prescient that millennials can only access the most basic cinematic tropes by embracing precarity, and turning precarity into a source of inventiveness in their own lives. After all, the punishment for “snitching” on Nerve as a player, and informing the police, is immediate and severe debt, just as one of the main motivations for enlisting as a player is to forestall social and economic debt. While there may be occasional lapses in logic, they’re so bound up with the rhythm and momentum of the film that it doesn’t really matter, as Joost and Schulman craft what may be the best millennial romance this decade, and the most moving.