Nowadays just about anyone can pick up a digital camera and shoot a film, but as a result it’s becoming increasingly difficult for small, low-budget films by new filmmakers to get noticed among the crowd. There is always the film festival circuit and social marketing, but the only way to really get noticed as a filmmaker today is to make a good film. Nerve, which screened last year at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival and earlier this year as part of the New Filmmakers New York series, is a great example of a debut feature film that deserves to get noticed.
Josh Biggs (Tyler Langdon, who stars in the upcoming The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) is more-or-less paralyzed by his social anxiety, rendering him unable to look anyone in the eye or speak openly about anything meaningful. He works as a lab worker alongside Aurora (Laura Alexandra Ramos), a beautiful young woman who wants to use Josh as her test subject for her dissertation study on treatments for social anxiety. She encourages Josh to confront others, particularly women, and while Josh certainly starts to open up to strangers, including a ragtag group of homeless people whom he welcomes to stay at his apartment. But soon the “experiment” just makes Josh more surly in his assertiveness, first with his drug-pushing roommate Walt (Peter DiVito) and then with everyone around him. Josh goes from uncontrollably hiding behind his social anxiety to using his new-found social obnoxiousness as a way to cut himself off from having to deal with reality. He’s goes from one extreme to another, and perhaps only his growing feelings for Aurora can help him find a balance.
Nerve was shot on a low-budget, so you have to give writer/producer/director/editor J.R. Sawyers credit for a few artistic hiccups, especially since Nerve is also his first feature film (though Sawyers has experience shooting short films and is also an actor). The lighting may not be perfect at times, but its more than compensated by some clever camerawork, and some of the music choices don’t quite fit the film’s feeling, but I don’t review independent films to nitpick about what they could do better with larger budgets. What helps the film immensely is that Sawyers has found two great leads in Tyler Langdon and Laura Alexandra Ramos. The changing relationship between their characters Josh and Aurora drives the film, and as the two best actors in the film the scenes between them are the most intriguing. In fact, Langdon is so impressive with his seamless transitions between the two facets of Josh’s persona that a “rapid heartbeat” sound effect that periodically appears in tense situations is unnecessary. Langdon is a talented enough actor to indicate his anxiety with his facial expressions and body language.
Ramos is also very effective in her role, and she brings depth to a character who in lesser hands might come off as a flirty tease. After all, most of the earlier scenes between Aurora and Josh are set in a club where Aurora is in disguise as an attractively-dressed clubgoer or in her apartment where she is in casual clothes, which blurs the professional line of “doctor-patient” and “something more.” As usual for tempting females that lead male characters in movies are interested in, she has a boyfriend, Wesley (Kyle Billings), and naturally he’s an obnoxious tool. He has the best line in the film though (“That’s my beach towel hanging on the rack over there, Sparky!”) Okay, maybe it isn’t the best line, but it cracked me up and my life won’t be complete until I can use that line in real-life.
In fact, I really enjoyed the humor in the film — when Josh is attempting to get over his nervousness around women there’s a very true-to-life scene demonstrating the pratfalls in trying to initiate a conversation in a a loud club. There are also numerous funny scenes with the homeless people who become squatters in Josh’s apartment. Actually, they arrive in the apartment rather abruptly, and I felt like there was a missing piece of the story there — how did Josh go from getting comfortable to talking to women in bars to inviting homeless people to crash on his couch? I would’ve liked to have seen that transition.
Nevertheless, these issues don’t hurt the film’s overall strength, which effectively portrays Josh’s struggles with his social anxiety and how it eventually ties in with his changing feelings for Aurora. Along the way it brings up some interesting questions, like whether or not Josh only agreed to be part of the study to get closer to Aurora or whether he only falls in love with her because of some doctor-patient bond. Like the ending of the film, these questions are open-ended, which is another strength of the movie: despite being his first feature film, Sawyers already knows that he needs to leave at least some things for the audience to decide.
Rating: A thought-provoking and funny movie which deserves a bigger audience (8/10).
For more information on Nerve, check out the film’s website here. We’ll also be posting an interview with director J.R. Sawyers soon!