Directors: Ariel Schulman & Henry Joost Starring: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco Running Time: 96 minutes
The premise of Nerve, where teenagers play a super popular smartphone game that can make you a viral sensation or send you wandering thoughtlessly into harms way, has managed to become more plausible in the time between its conception and its release. In the game Nerve you’re either a Player; your life on display to the whole world, taking on dares for cash, or a Watcher; suggesting the dares, giving the money and commenting lewdly and anonymously. Directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost have a decent grasp on how young people engage with technology. They also know how our morality becomes murky when we can hide who we are online (they previously directed Catfish). Their film is at its best when they use that knowledge to show why a game like this would appeal to teens and struggles when its time to learn a Valuable Lesson.
Emma Roberts, forever flitting between the last year of high school and the first year of college in her roles, plays Vee (short for Venus). The story is based on a novel and Vee is YA Protagonist 101, a lover of photography and Virginia Woolf, shy but brilliant and she has a place in CalTech waiting but her mother (Juliette Lewis) is understandably clingy after the death of Vee’s brother. Vee’s reluctance to talk to her brother, cute boys et al has her pegged as forever a Watcher by best friend and avid Player Sydney (Emily Meade), which prompts Vee to sign up for a series of escalating dares. This leads her not to marriage to an ex-Navy Seal seal salesperson, but to a sexy trip to NYC with mysterious bad boy Player, Ian (Dave Franco, surprisingly tolerable).
Nerve deserves a little credit for showing the dark side of its premise about an act later than might be expected. It keeps things fun and energetic while Vee and Ian zip around the city on a brightly coloured motorcycle (occasionally blindfolded). It would be easy for the film to go full Saw very quickly, but Nerve is committed to at least one thing: that this game would be popular and people would want to play it. That makes it easier to ignore the many, many aspects of Nerve that make no sense. Tech loving viewers beware, screenwriters have discovered the terms deep web and open source.
The effort to keep the film high paced and keep the audience from thinking falters however, when the ending arrives and the filmmakers remember they really do want you to think. All of the plot points that don’t make sense crash into each other, the moralising becomes so heavy-handed that going into freeze frame and Roberts asking what she should have done differently wouldn’t be out of place and the plot resolves with the most irritating trope: the plan the audience isn’t in on.
Still, even if Schulman and Joost might not know how to reach these kids, they at least speak their language aesthetically. Scenes are shown through a social media filter, with a stream of comments and an icon showing rising followers. Establishing shots of the city are livened with digital flags, identifying and tracking Nerve users as they sign up or bail out. The film is bathed in in-vogue neons and scored with a hip electronic playlist, as if somebody was kicked out of their older brother’s room while they were watching a Nicholas Winding Refn movie. Had Nerve leaned harder into the style and tried for less substance it would probably be better. Its a film for the Snapchat set: fun, nice to look at, silly and disposable.