At the opening, I was reminded of the movie Unfriended (2014), a movie that’s all about cyber-bullying and the dangers of the Internet, mainly in what it does to people. This movie is a continuation or version of the themes of Unfriended, except the filmmakers don’t limit themselves, as the director of Unfriended did, to only showing the computer screen. As essentially a ghost story, Unfriended wanted to keep itself contained or boxed in, even if it was letterboxed in. This movie puts those Internet-fears outside in the real world and on the streets of New York.
Emma Roberts (American Horror Story and Scream Queens) stars as Venus Delmonico aka Vee, a shy high school senior who is contemplating which college to attend. She’s a photographer and takes pictures for the school yearbook. She has her eye on CalArts where she could continue studying and pursuing a career in photography. Her mother, Nancy, played by Juliette Lewis, is a single mom and overworked nurse who, after tragically losing her son, wants Vee to attend college close to home in New York, certainly not California.
Emily Meade (Me Him Her and Money Monster) co-stars as Sydney, the best friend of Vee who isn’t shy and who doesn’t seem too concerned about post-secondary schooling. She’s a wild, free spirit who’s very plugged into social media and is perhaps an aspiring Kim Kardashian. She’s currently all about a new social media app called “Nerve,” which has come on like a wave, similar to the Pokemon Go craze.
Instead of walking in public places and trying to capture fictional Pokemon characters, the Nerve app has players doing real-world dares that they must film with their smartphone cameras. Each dare completed wins the player money deposited directly into his or her bank account. Each dare gets increasingly difficult and if you don’t complete the dare within a certain time-frame, you could lose the money and get booted from the competition.
There is a competition that includes how high the amount of money a player earns, as well as how high the amount of people who are watching one particular player. Users who don’t want to do the dares are simply called “watchers.” Whichever player has the greatest number in either money or watchers, or both, wins for whatever city in which the person lives. There are some rules to the game that are elusive, but that’s the general rundown.
Dave Franco (Now You See Me and Neighbors) in what is arguably his first leading role also co-stars as Ian, or at least his online handle is Ian. Not much is learned about Ian. He purposefully doesn’t reveal a lot about himself. One assumes that he’s a risk-taker because he’s a player of the Nerve app. Otherwise, all one knows is that he’s a very handsome and very charming guy. A later dare involving him to strip naked reveals how muscular he is, but, besides his sex appeal, who knows who he is?
As constructed, this movie comes off like the recent Cheap Thrills (2014). It isn’t a horror film though. It’s not even that much more than a heightened and slightly tense drama. Yet, it pivots and tries to mimic David Fincher’s The Game with Emma Roberts in the Michael Douglas role, but this movie is less dark and paranoid as Fincher’s film. In that way, it’s less about bullying as it is about Roberts’ Vee coming out her shell, a late coming-of-age, letting her hair down, her learning to be not shy but bolder, being less behind the camera and in front of it and feeling worthy, or freer.
Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the guys who also directed Catfish (2010), this movie also has an aspect of people pretending or trying to be something that they’re not because the Internet can allow it, as well as there being a warped kind of peer pressure because of the web. It also points to the threat of hackers, and how forfeiting so much personal data to the Internet and these apps can be problematic. What people will do as a result to being connected on the Internet, the ethics people will break or apathy that they’ll take becomes a little heavy-handed and on-the-nose in the final minutes, but the message hammered needs to be blunt.
There are two actresses from Orange is the New Black who pop up in this movie. Kimiko Glenn plays Liv, a watcher who is also a friend of Sydney. Samira Wiley plays a female hacker who by the end of this movie feels like she was pulled from an episode of Mr. Robot. She’s like Ms. Robot. It’s a little ridiculous but it works in a weird way.
Four Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for dangerous and risky behavior, some sex, drugs, drinking, language and nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 36 mins.