Directors - Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Cast - Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Machine Gun Kelly, Juliette Lewis
Rating - 3/5
As surprisingly solid as Nerve is, it achieves the unique distinction of being a film in which virtually every character interaction, every plot twist and every new development reminds you of another movie.
That isn’t to say that it is derivative or unoriginal – even though it is, slightly. But despite its knowing – or unknowing, it really is quite difficult to say – nods to various other films, from ’90s teen movies to ’90s cyber thrillers, Nerve somehow manages to make all those similarities seem more like vague tributes and not, as would have been more problematic, outright ripoffs.
There is, hidden somewhere in the steely servers of Nerve, a smart movie about cyberbullying, overzealous social media influencers and the dangers of internet addiction, but this isn’t it. What it is instead is a terrific little teen thriller with just enough big ideas to give it a slight edge over the other, flashier, wannabe young-adult franchise-starters.
The premise is undeniably intriguing: Vee, played by Emma Roberts, is introduced to a shady online augmented reality game called Nerve by her more adventurous friend Sydney. Once you sign up, the game divides participants into two categories: Watchers and players. The watchers set dares for the players to complete and every successful ‘mission’ is followed immediately by first, a beep on their phones to inform them that a hefty chunk of change has been deposited into their bank accounts, and then, a riskier follow-up to the previous dare.
In her very first dare (kiss a stranger for $100) Vee runs into Ian, played by Dave, youngest of the Franco clan, effortless conjurer of vessels of charm, and a fellow player. Very soon, they’re graduating from innocent kissing to street racing, getting tattoos, streaking naked around the city and robbing fancy boutiques.
Yes, that’s about the extent to which Nerve is willing to push its boundaries, seeing as it finds itself shackled to a PG-13 (U/A) rating and an audience that will unlikely be able to purchase its tickets with their own money.
It isn’t like David Fincher’s The Game, in which Michael Douglas found himself in a similarly surreal situation, albeit without any of the tech paranoia. It even reminded me of the fantastic indie Cheap Thrills, although that one ended – spoiler alert – with the ‘hero’ committing murder as part of his final dare. There are even shades of A Serbian Film, but let’s not even go there. Seriously, don’t even Google it.
Nerve is, instead, like an episode of Black Mirror intended for an audience that is mostly comprised of Justin Beiber and Selena Gomez fans – and this is no way an insult.
But it works. And if it worked for me, despite one familiar trope after another dancing distractingly on the screen, then it will surely work for more casual moviegoers, and especially for its intended audience.
And you can thank Emma Roberts and Dave Franco for that. Both actors are on top form here, which is a stroke of excellent luck since their characters are unfortunately as generic as something out of an RPG (Role Playing Game for all the non-nerds).
And I’m a big fan of directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, whose first film, the thrilling little documentary Catfish, went on to create an entire subculture online. It’s no surprise that they found this material attractive – both films would make for a tremendous double feature.
They pace this movie like a plane on a runway, in a perpetual state of take-off. There’s a compilation album-friendly trip-hop/chillstep soundtrack, and stunning Nicolas Winding Refn-esque visuals (ie, neon, neon, neon, and more neon). It’s all very pleasing to the eyes and ears.
It is immensely disappointing then, that the film takes an abrupt U-turn in its final act, and becomes too preoccupied with delivering a moral lecture, instead of striding into the more logical, subversive areas – ie, ending with a kid dying a horrible death.
But Nerve isn’t that kind of movie. It’s an annoyingly good-natured film about the meanest, most lawless hellscape on earth: The Internet.