Henry Joost &  Ariel Shulman

Joost & Schulman were responsible for one of the creepiest films of the last few years, the ‘documentary’,  Catfish, which aroused  compulsive curiosity and then a genuinely spooky fear of where it might lead, centred around the uncertainties of believing what you see  online. Now they’ve brought a zingy cyber adventure to the screen which delivers surprises and  thrills as well as an underlying comment on herd mentality, while tapping into the background buzz of anxieties about the increasing power of the net.  It’s pretty refreshing, even if it doesn’t quite deliver a denouement that lives up to its bright promise.

Vee – short for Venus, how embarrassing is that? – (Emma Roberts),  a considerate, unadventurous student, is egged on by her extrovert friend to have a go on the new wildly successful dark-web cyber game Nerve, a kind of truth or dare, where you win money by taking on challenges of an increasing boldness. Are you a Watcher or a Player, comes the question on her screen, and in a wild moment she taps ‘Player’. Immediately launched into a quest that’s light-hearted but challenging, she’s observed by a small gang of ‘Watchers’, tipped off and ready to video the event. Turns out she has to kiss a man she doesn’t know, and who should she choose but Ian, (Dave Franco), hiding behind a copy of To the Lighthouse in a bar, who by his cheerful smile should be easily sussed out as someone not taking his Eng Lit seriously enough to be an authentic reader.  We soon start to twig that everything could well be rigged, and what seem like free will decisions are no such thing.

Unable to resist Ian’s young-Brando-esque looks, straightaway Vee’s overcome her timidity and is off on a jolly escapade on the back of his motorbike, so outrageous that it grabs them loads of watchers and puts Vee at the top of the popularity rankings. Should she trust him? In time-honoured teen movie style they make a lovely couple, and there’s real chemistry between the two of them. The adventure scoots along at a rare old speed,  involving posh frocks, and a bike ride through busy streets which outdoes all the glitzy car chases I’ve seen lately, mainly because it knows when to stop and doesn’t involve a nauseating glut of flashy, expensive destruction.

Set in New York City, looking in the dark like a digital confection itself, the film has smart ways of  of presenting the cyber world – locations of individuals pop up like computer graphics across the skyline, and we sometimes experience the act of staring at a screen from the inside, the earnest gamer’s face peering through backwards graphics at us, the audience become game-maker. It’s fun, even as the jokiness falls away from the challenges and they become. lethal. But, like most puzzle films, the ending, spectacular though it is, can’t measure up to events leading up to it. But in many ways it’s a pretty superior teen movie, with a multiple happy ending: Ian gets to grin his Sky Masterson grin, nerds triumph and are revealed to be as sexy as the action men,  and the community of  Watchers learns a salutary lesson. And what other teen movie can you think of that offers a succinct critique of To the Lighthouse?

Seen at Sunderland Empire, August 12


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