How often have you been in a public place lately and everybody’s looking at their phones?  The meteoric rise of the “Pokeman Go” craze has introduced a lot of us old fogeys (pluggers?) to the reality of a lot of (younger) people playing virtual games in real time.  All of this makes the movie “Nerve” quite timely as a cautionary tale of potential excess.

                Emma Roberts stars as Vee, a more-or-less typical high school senior living on Staten Island with her single Mom, Nancy (Juliette Lewis), who seems to be away at work most of the time.  That leaves Vee with a lot of free time on her hands, which ordinarily isn’t a problem:  she’s a mature person, gets good grades, is interested in developing her interest in photography, and hangs out with a good crowd.  True, her best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), has a bit of a wild streak, but so far that hasn’t directly affected Vee:  until now.

                It seems that Sydney has started playing this game on her phone called “Nerve,” where you sign up as either a “watcher” or a “player.”  If you’re just a “watcher,” you have to pay a daily fee.  If you’re a “player,” then you are issued a “dare,” which you have to complete in a certain amount of time, or you’re a “bail” or a “fail.”  If you accept and complete the dare, not only do you get money put into your account (they’ve already accessed all your personal information, including where you live), you get more “watchers” who are now interested in seeing you complete your next dare, which is usually, well, more daring.

                Vee, a bit stung by her friend’s criticism that she’s a stick-in-the-mud who’ll never take any risks, decides to sign up for the game and become a “player,” if only just to prove to herself that there’s a lot more to her than other people may think.  Kiss a stranger.  Get on a motorcycle and ride to the City with said stranger.   Try on a way-too-expensive designer dress.

                You can see where this is going.  As Vee volunteers for greater “dares,” the number of her “watchers” exponentially increases.  This alarms her quiet almost-boyfriend, Tommy (Miles Heizer), who just happens to belong to an underground “dark web” group that can actually figure out how to curtail some of this online madness, but will they hack it in time?  Yes, soon Vee is in over her head, as are the other “players” still remaining, who, it turns out, have become prisoners of their own compulsivity and competitiveness.

                This movie also underscores the “dark side” of so many people being able to see and say things anonymously by using random screen names.  Yes, that can lead to cyberbullying, but also, in its darker applications, voyeurism, and even mob mentality. 

                True, I am not the target audience for this film.  (And that was readily apparent by a quick visual demographic survey of the other people in the theater.)  But it’s a quick, quirky parable of our current cyber culture that’s worth noting, by “watchers” of any age.


Questions for Discussion:

1)  Have you ever been “dared” to do something outside your comfort zone?  Did you do it?

2)   What are the dangers of so much potential online gaming?

3)   Movie theaters themselves ask people to turn off their phones, so as not to distract other viewers.  In what other places and circumstances should people turn off their phones?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Assocation