Nerve is the rare teen movie that feels almost as digitally fluent as its target audience. A slick, techno-dystopian romantic thriller from Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the directors of Catfish, Emma Roberts stars as Vee Delmonico, a shy Staten Island teen who gets sucked into an online truth-or-dare game called Nerve at the behest of her more adventurous BFF Sydney (Emily Meade). In the world of Nerve, “watchers” assign dares to “players,” who must then livestream their antics in order to win cash prizes, like Fear Factor by way of Periscope.
The movie follows Vee on a night of antics throughout New York City, as she teams up with another player, Ian (Dave Franco), for a series of escalating dares, which begin as innocuous hijinks (make out with a stranger! run naked through Bergdorf’s!) but soon turn ugly as the watchers put them through ever more dangerous challenges, and Ian and Vee quickly become some of the game’s most popular — and imperiled — players. While adhering to traditional teen-romance archetypes, Nerve is also a sharp allegory for the thrills and threats of fickle online stardom, surveillance culture, augmented-reality gaming, social media as a source of validation, online trolling, hacker culture, and the online hive-mind. My parents would, I suspect, find the movie outlandish and dystopian, mainly because they still use AOL. For a younger audience, I suspect it will be nostalgia fodder before it hits iTunes.
Nerve grasps at an answer to something filmmakers continuously struggle with, which is how to make films reflecting the fact that we spend more time communicating with each other virtually than we do in real life. One of the hardest things about integrating technology into a film is finding an interesting visual language to depict the distinctly un-cinematic activity of being on your phone, and Nerve does better than most, slipping inside the interface of the screen with ease, overlaying a rolling ticker of comments and a fluctuating viewer count as Vee and Ian complete their dares.
Still, there are few things more annoying than watching a film that gets technology almost right, and we’re all so techno-fluent that it’s easy to be taken out of a story when little details don’t ring true. Even with the savviness of Nerve, I couldn’t help but be pedantic. Her trolls would be meaner, I thought, scanning the comments left on Vee’s feed. She would definitely be getting yelled at for cultural appropriation right now, I mused as Vee rapped along to a WuTang clan song. (I swear I’m fun at parties.) And don’t even get me started on the hacking scenes, which take place in some sort of subterranean Brooklyn ping-pong bar and made me want to tear my hair out (just kidding, I’m not fun at parties).
The best teen movies succeed on their ability to accurately reflect the tumult of adolescents’ emotional landscapes, but as these landscapes have been rewired, film has struggled to evolve with them. The various solutions teen movies have adopted: (1) largely ignore that technology exists or actively do away with it, like a horror film where everyone’s phones conveniently stop working; (2) plop in a few disjointed set-pieces to show that you know phones exist, like the texting scene in Neighbors 2, but otherwise pretend it’s still the ‘90s; (3) deal with the internet but treat it as a cautionary tale and/or something that can kill you, whether it’s a horror movie like Unfriended or a cyber-bullying tale like The DUFF. Nerve is better than most films at showing how contemporary social networks can enrich a life as well as harm it, but the film’s rapid descent into moralizing and Purge-level dystopia makes it easy to dismiss in its more prescient moments.
With so much content being created online and the modes of consumption changing so fast, it’s harder and harder for teen films not to feel like self-parody in the time it takes to get from concept to multiplex. Obviously there are lots of details in teen movies that will look funny in the years to come. But social media and technology have so fundamentally reshaped adolescents’ relationships, social lives, and senses of identity that seeing shoddy tech isn’t like seeing a dated hairstyle or ridiculous outfit — it feels fundamentally inauthentic, like being talked down to instead of being leveled with.
Teen movies depend on the intensity with which teens experience tiny fluctuations in status and social power dynamics, all of which now take place in rapidly-evolving virtual networks largely inscrutable to those outside them. I’d argue that there hasn’t really been a generation-defining teen movie since Mean Girls, back in 2004, just before the internet turned society into one big, interactive Burn Book. As a kid, I was a teen-movie binge-watcher, fed by a steady stream of VHS rentals from my local Blockbuster, and I dabbled generously in different decades, connecting with the Pink Ladies and the Plastics, Ferris Bueller, and Cher Horowitz, with equal comfort. The hairdos and pop-culture references changed, but the angst, the popularity struggles, the tumult of young love remained basically the same. I find it hard to believe that these movies will resonate with teens of the future in the same way, given that we’re all basically speaking different languages from month to month. Teen movies are like time capsules, reflecting universal adolescent concerns through different generational prisms. Now, the more current the film feels, and the more zeitgeisty bullet-points it hits, the more it just feels like a relic for future teens to laugh at.