Nerve (2016) / Thriller-Romance
MPAA Rated: Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving dangerous and risky behavior, some sexual content, language, drug content, drinking and nudity-all involving teens
Running Time: 96 min.
Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Juliette Lewis, Colson Baker (Machine Gun Kelly)
Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulmann
Screenplay: Jessica Sharzer (based on the novel by Jeanne Ryan)
Review published July 28, 2016
Nerve is an adaptation of the 2012 young adult cyber thriller novel by Jeanne Ryan, scripted by Jessica Scharzer (Speak, "American Horror Story"). The film is co-directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who made their name in the industry approaching a similar subject about the dangers of the internet culture in their 2010 documentary, Catfish, later a television show on MTV, and a new phrase coined for the modern generation.
Emma Roberts (Palo Alto, We're the Millers) plays Venus 'Vee' Delmonico, an introverted, straight-as-an-arrow senior in a Staten Island high school. Vee is cajoled by her more outgoing and bold friend Sydney (Meade, Money Monster) to install a popular underground ("dark web") smartphone and desktop app called 'Nerve' in which one can choose to be a Player, who participates in a customized series of 'dares' for cash deposits and follower base, or Watcher, who, for a fee, contribute to the game system by making dare suggestions, monitoring and submitting approval (a la Periscope) when they're completed by the Players. Pegged as an instant watcher, Vee decides to be a bit more daring and see what life is like on the Player side. Her first dare is to kiss a complete stranger in a diner for five seconds, which introduces her to Dave Franco's Ian (Now You See Me 2), who turns out to also be a Player himself. The game continues to pair up the two based on algorithms generated through the harvesting of their online personas through all manner of social media and private accounts, leading them to continue their misadventures-on-demand through the department stores and bustling streets of Manhattan. The problem is that the further you're into it, the harder it is to quit, whether you want to or not.
As millions roam the streets after downloading the wildly popular game app "Pokemon Go", trying to capture and battle others for gaming glory out in the streets, many of them putting themselves or others in danger, Nerve should benefit from tapping into the mania that can overtake people who merely pursue things of little to no value just because so many others also want those trivial things and be recognized by others for being a true player. One could relegate Nerve as an all-flash, little-substance teenage version of David Fincher's The Game, but I think there's more to the film than merely surface pleasures. For one, the film captures the social media hysteria of following the pack, desiring to obtain the things that everyone else wants in life. It also looks at how the internet has put everyone into the camps of either being exhibitionists or voyeurs, watching or being watched by hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions based on the outrageousness of the words or deeds propagated on the net for all to see. And it also exposes the internet and its anonymity, as people are willing to say and support some of the vilest of opinions and positions so long as they don't have to expose their own name and face when doing so.
This film definitely does have an emphasis on sights and sounds, with striking neon-glowing cinematography from Michael Simmonds (The Last of Robin Hood), and a nearly non-stop collection of pop/dance selections on the well-curated electronic and pop soundtrack, including a couple of moments of homage for the Wu-Tang Clan's "C.R.E.A.M.", which ties in well with the themes of avarice within the movie, and Roy Orbison's "You Got It" to indicate just how far one is willing to go to please their admirers. There are some inventive camera angles employed throughout, including placing the camera as if it were behind the LEDs of a computer or smartphone screen (causing the images and words to appear backwards across the actors' faces), and a slew of pop-up conversations that take up screen space as we see the buzz that's being generated by completing the various dares. The two lead performers work well together, even if their characters aren't any more deep than whatever's necessary to show us to get us from scene to scene.
The film begins to falter in its third act where the implausibility factor of the dares and the participants' willingness to do them escalate into the realm of the absurd. Being that it's a PG-13 film based on a book aimed at young adults, it never quite gets as sordid as it could, though there are lives on the line as the Players begin to do increasingly more crazy stunts as they climb to the upper echelon of the competition. The overblown showdown between the elite players during the film's climax takes turns that threaten to sink the film, particularly in how it plays out. Nerve is a case of the kind of movie one admires more for its journey than its ultimate destination, so how much you enjoy it will be tied directly into how willing you are to forgive the leaps in logic necessary for the sake of an entertaining yarn.
If you can suspend disbelief, and a lot of it, for the sake of the sheer entertainment value of the provocative premise and social commentary, you're more likely to enjoy the candy-coated thrills of Nerve. Like the viral videos you'll find every day on the net, it may not be remembered when the next example comes along, but while it's on, it's not easy to take your eyes off of it.
©2016 Vince Leo