Back to School Part II #52: Nerve (dir by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman)


For the past three weeks, Lisa Marie has been in the process of reviewing 56 back to school films!  She’s promised the rest of the TSL staff that this project will finally wrap up by the end of today, so that she can devote her time to helping to prepare the site for its annual October horrorthon!  Will she make it or will she fail, lose her administrator privileges, and end up writing listicles for Buzzfeed?  Keep reading the site to find out!)

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Recently, I came across someone on twitter wondering if Emma Roberts is ever actually going to play an adult role.  Personally, I think the question is a bit unfair (just because you’re playing a teenager, that doesn’t mean that you’re not dealing with “adult” issues) but I understand the logic behind it.  Emma Roberts is a Hollywood veteran who made her film debut 15 years ago.  She’s currently 25 years old but, more often that not, she’s still cast as a high school student.  (At the most, she might occasionally get to be a college student.)  Going solely by her film and television roles, Emma Roberts has been a high school student for 12 years now.

But you know what?

I say more power to Emma Roberts.  Being a teenager is a lot more fun than being an adult and she should stay in high school for as long as she can pull it off!

Anyway, this year’s Emma-Roberts-In-High-School film was a thriller called Nerve.  Actually, very little of the film takes place in high school though a running theme through the film is the desire of a senior named Vee (short for Venus and played by Roberts) to attend the California Institute of the Arts after she graduates.  Unfortunately, it costs money to go to a good school and Vee’s mother (Juliette Lewis) doesn’t have any.  As well, both Vee and her mother are still struggling to accept the recent death of Vee’s brother.

However, there may be a way for Vee to raise the money.  Vee learns that her friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), has become an online star by playing Nerve.  Nerve is a game where you can either volunteer to be a player or you can pay to be a viewer.  (There’s a third role that you can play in Nerve but it’s not a good role and we don’t learn about it until later in the film.)  The watchers dare the players to do something.  If the players do it, they win money.  If the players fail … well, there are consequences for everything.

Though initially reluctant, Vee agrees to be a player.  At first, it’s a lot of fun.  The normally cautious Vee gets to experience the exhilaration of taking a risk.  She even meets another Nerve player, Ian (Dave Franco) and soon the two of them are a team, partners and perhaps something more.  But, as the game progresses, the dares become more dangerous and the stakes get higher.  And, of course, Ian has a secret of his own..

The great thing about Nerve is that it tells a story about what’s is pretty much happening right now.  It’s easy to imagine a real-life version of Nerve going on right now.  As I watched Vee and Ian play Nerve, I was actually reminded of how much fun twitter used to be.  And then, just as happens in Nerve, more and more people got involved and things quickly went downhill.  The more popular both twitter and Nerve became, the less pleasant the experience.  The same is true for just about everything that’s ever happened online.  It always starts out as fun until the trolls arrive.  (And trolls, of course, have the magic ability to use their mere presence to transform former non-trolls into trolls as well.)  Nerve answers the age-old question of why we can’t have nice things.

Beyond that, it’s an entertaining film.  Emma Roberts and Dave Franco make for an exceptionally likable couple, the film is quickly paced, and Michael Simmonds’s cinematography gives the film an appealing and slickly flamboyant look.  Nerve didn’t really get as much attention as it deserved when it was originally released but I have a feeling that it is a film that will be rediscovered and appreciated by viewers in the future.

 

Playing Catch-Up: The Stanford Prison Experiment and The Tribe


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The Stanford Prison Experiment (dir by Kyle Patrick Alvarez)

The Stanford Prison Experiment tells a true story.  It’s important to point that out because this is one of those films that, if you didn’t know it was based on a true story, you would probably be inclined to dismiss as being totally improbable.

In 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) conducted a psychological experiment at Stanford University.  A fake prison was built in the basement of a campus building, complete with cells and even a room to be used for solitary confinement.  15 students volunteered to take part in the experiment.  For $15.00 a day, some of the students were randomly assigned to be prisoners while others got to be guards.  The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks but Zimbardo ended it after 6 days.  Why?  Because the students had started to the take the experiment very seriously, with the guards growing increasingly sadistic towards their “prisoners.”  Afterwards, many of the prisoner students claimed to have been traumatized while the guard students felt they were just playing a game.

(As one of the guards says in the film, “Am I still going to get paid?”)

The Stanford Prison Experiment tells the story of that controversial experiment and it is, at times, quite a harrowing experience.  Interestingly, when the film begins, the focus is on the prisoners.  I immediately noticed that Ezra Miller was one of the prisoners and, being familiar with his work in Perks of Being A Wallflower and We Need To Talk About Kevin, I naturally assumed that the majority of the film would revolve around him.  After all, among the actors playing the prisoners, Ezra Miller was the “biggest name.”  And, when the film began, it did seem to be centered around Miller’s likable and rebellious presence.

But then something happened.  Miller faded into the background.  In fact, all of the “prisoners” faded into the background and the actors became almost indistinguishable from each other.  Instead, the film started to focus on one of the guards.  Outside of the prison, Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano) is a laid back and rather amiable California college student.  But, once he shows up for the night shift, Archer starts to talk about all of the prison films that he’s seen.  He starts to speak in a Southern accent.  He says stuff like, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”  And soon, Archer is making the rules inside the prison.

In much the same way that Christopher Archer takes over the experiment, actor Michael Angarano takes over the film.  While Zimbardo and his colleagues watch Archer’s actions with a mix of fascination and fear, the film’s audience becomes enthralled with Angarano’s intense performance.  Wisely, neither Angarano nor the film allow Archer to turn into a cardboard villain.  He’s not a bad guy.  Instead, he’s playing a role.  He’s been told to act like a guard and that’s what he’s going to do, regardless of whatever else may happen.  The most fascinating part of the film becomes the contrast between Archer the likable student and Archer the fascist authority figure.

It’s frustrating that more people didn’t see The Stanford Prison Experiment when it was released in 2015.  Considering the blind trust in authority that is currently so popular in certain parts of the American culture, The Stanford Prison Experiment is a film that a lot of people really do need to see and learn from.

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The Tribe (dir by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)

Anyone who says that they truly understand everything that happens in the disturbing Ukrainian film The Tribe is lying.  Taking place at a school for the deaf and exclusively cast with deaf actors, The Tribe is a film where everyone communicates in Ukrainian Sign Language and there are no subtitles.  However, the actors are often filmed with their back to the camera and occasionally, their hands are out of frame so, even if you do know Ukrainian Sign Language, there’s still going to be scenes where you have no idea what anyone is saying.

And it’s appropriate really.  The Tribe is a film about alienation and, by refusing to give us either an interpreter or subtitles, it forces the audience to feel the same alienation that the film’s characters have to deal with on a daily basis.  It quickly becomes obvious that these permanent outsiders have created their own society and the least of their concerns is whether the rest of the world understands it.

What can be learned about the film’s story largely comes from the body language of the actors and the audience’s own knowledge of gangster movies, which is what The Tribe basically is.  A new student at a boarding school for the deaf is recruited into a gang that deals drugs and pimps out two female students as prostitutes at a truck stop.  When the new student falls in love with one of the girls, it leads to some truly brutal acts of violence, all of which are somehow made more disturbing by the fact that they take place in total silence.

(The talkative criminals of most gangster films allow audiences to focus on something other than the violence.  When people talk about the opening of a film like Pulp Fiction, they talk about John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson talking about Amsterdam.  They don’t focus on the guys getting gunned down in their apartment.  In The Tribe, there are no quips or one-liners before people are hurt and we are forced to pay more attention to the consequences of brutality.)

The Tribe is made up of only 34 shots.  The wide-angle lens forces us to consider these alienated characters against the barren Ukrainian landscape and the camera constantly moves with the characters, tracking them as closely as fate.  Intense and dream-lie, The Tribe is a hauntingly enigmatic film.  It’s not an easy film but it is a rewarding one.