Playing Nice: Nerve, by Sarah Brinks
“Playing Nice” is a series of articles that will examine group dynamics in film.
**This article will contain spoilers. I strongly recommend you watch the film first and then read the article if you care about spoilers.** Nerve is a bit of a departure from the films I usually write about for these articles. They tend to be films with large casts that interact with each other in a confined space or under particular circumstances. Nerve has a relatively small core cast but it becomes much larger when you add in all the “watchers”. Nerve is about a young woman named Vee (played by Emma Roberts), a smart and talented photographer who unfortunately cannot afford to go to college in California like she wants to. She has a friend name Sydney who is outgoing and bold, the opposite of Vee. Sydney begins playing an online game called ‘Nerve’. Through their phones the “watchers” of ‘Nerve’ give dares to the “players” and when the dare is complete players win money. After an embarrassing incident with a boy she likes in high school Vee decides to throw caution to the wind and become a player. Her first dare takes her to a diner where she has to kiss a stranger for 5 seconds. She finds Ian (played by Dave Franco) there and kisses him. After that the “watchers” keep Vee and Ian together as they achieve dares.
The range of dares in Nerve varies based on the player’s fears and online preferences. Sydney is afraid of heights so the dare she ultimately fails on is when she has to climb from one building to another on a ladder suspended between two windows. She is too afraid to complete it in time, whereas Vee is not afraid of heights and is able to complete the dare. The dares also increase in complexity/danger as the value of the dares go up. Kissing Ian won Vee $100, but driving blindfolded in New York City at 60 MPH wins them $10,000. Initially I criticized that the dares would have ramped up much faster but upon reflection it makes sense that early in the game the dares would still be fairly tame like kissing a stranger and going to the city with him. In the beginning players would only have a few watchers who were most likely their friends. People who know you would likely go a little easy on you, whereas strangers would push you to do more dangerous, scary, and illegal dares.
These articles are about group dynamics in films so, while I don’t think Nerve is an entirely accurate version of the population or people on social media as a whole, it does make some interesting points and predictions. There is an anonymity that goes along with social media, essentially we wear our handles and screennames as the modern day equivalent of a mask. Similar to the Shakespearean tradition of masks allowing characters to freely express their true feelings, screennames give the watchers the ability to suggest cruel dares and even play the roles of judge, jury and executioner. At the end of the film when Vee asks the watchers to vote whether or not Ty (another player) should shoot her. You see people choosing ‘yes’ and ‘no’. One group of watchers that know both Sydney and Vee are at party in the city, you see the people at the party voting and one of their friends has to chastise them and tell them to vote ‘no’. After they think Vee has been shot the watchers are finally held accountable for their actions with a message that they are an accessory to murder.
The societal and legal consequences for our behaviors are what keep society from breaking down into anarchy. The ability of people to anonymously decide the fate of others has become a popular theme in films recently such as Untraceable, the Purge films, and the most recent season of Black Mirror. While Nerve is one of the more entertaining examples, it has an additional layer in that the very act of viewing the film puts you in the position of the faceless “watchers” who decide the fate of the players. It goes so far as to give the audience the perspective of watching the film as though they were seeing the film through a watchers cell phone feed. While each watcher has autonomy there is also a great deal of ‘herd mentality’ going on in Nerve. We see that the top 10 players have thousands of watchers. In the crowd of thousands it is hard to see how a single voice has an impact. Somehow that makes the terrible choices that the watchers make easier. You see them voting for Vee to be shot with enthusiasm and glee until they are personally accused of being an accessory to murder. Then the reality that their individual choices matter sets in and they abandon Nerve.
In a world that moves at the speed of a mouse click or finger swipe, we are all navigating how to communicate across social media. The real-world consequences of online actions become more and more frequent. So the next time you find yourself on social media liking, commenting, or judging a video, ask yourself, “Am I playing nice?”