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Cinema in Focus: ‘Nerve’

Independent film a case study in a young man's social anxiety disorder and a novice therapist who attempts to heal him

3 Stars — Unsettling

All of us struggle with various quirks in our personality. But when those tendencies become so strong as to disorder our lives, we need help. Where we get that help is perhaps the most important decision of our lives for it will determine not only the course of our treatment but also the outcome for our lives. That is the theme of J.R. Sawyers’ first feature-length film, Nerve.

Written, directed and produced by Sawyers, Nerve could be a case study in schools of psychology for how not to do therapy. Discovered over time, counseling psychology has developed professional standards that keep therapists from various practices that harm the patient through both the manipulation of a therapist or being used or abused.

If, as is seen in this film, a therapist uses a person for “research” but has no boundaries or protections in the parameters of the experiment, then the patient is being inappropriately used and possibly abused. Perhaps the strongest of the professional requirements is that a therapist cannot have a personal or dual relationship with his or her patients. Such a relationship makes transference and counter-transference difficult if not impossible to manage.

The patient in this situation is Josh Biggs (Tyler Langdon). Biggs is a chemist who has social anxiety disorder and experiences panic attacks when placed in social situations where he fears making a faux pas. Working in the same company is Aurora Pilar (Laura Alexandra Ramos), a psychology student who chooses Biggs as the subject of her dissertation.

But Pilar clearly doesn’t know what she is doing. Armed only with technical definitions of the disorder she has chosen to research, she neither understands the danger nor establishes the boundaries necessary to keep Biggs from harm. The end result is that she takes a fearful man and manipulates him into being dangerously fearless.

Also present in Biggs’ life is his roommate, Walt Russo (Peter DiVito). Russo is a cocaine addict who constantly encourages Biggs to solve his disorder by masking it with this drug. This is sadly a common option for those who struggle with life. Rather than finding a competent therapist and experiencing healthy change, many turn to a path of self-medication that only exacerbates the difficulties they face.

We won’t disclose the way the story plays out or the damage that occurs in this unhealthy alliance, but the film is unsettling in its realistic presentation. The ensemble of homeless people Biggs invites into his home, the pain and confusion he experiences with Pilar, and the ultimate loss of job and home are all believably presented and leave us empathetic with his situation.

Nerve is adroitly created to present an unsettling and disturbing experience of a therapist’s malpractice and yet the resilience of the person she was using. As such, it provides little understanding in terms of what could have happened with a good therapist, but presents clearly the dangers of a bad one. In this way, it furthers our understanding of our human condition.

Discussion:

» With 7 to 8 percent of us experiencing social anxieties, it is helpful to understand them. Have you ever had a moment of fear or a panic attack? Where did you turn to get help? Was it effective?

» The negative impact that Biggs’ roommate had on him was exacerbated by the artificial “family” he created by inviting a group of homeless people into his home. Do you have a person who is harming you yet you choose to continue to live with them? What are you doing to get help?

» The loss of everything seems to give Biggs a sense of strength as his heart stops rushing and he becomes calm. Do you believe this is a real cure? Where do you see him being in a year, or five years? Why do you answer as you do?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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