Had Nerve stuck to the intrigue around online games, it could have been an efficiently entertaining piece of cinema.
Teens today with their Snapchat and Facebook—it’s no wonder people can’t spell correctly and that they let emojis do their talking for them. I sound like a senior citizen because that’s how you have to approach Lionsgate’s Nerve. The new feature from Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, best known for their work on the documentary Catfish and its subsequent television series (as well as Paranormal Activity sequels), Nerve will definitely strike one for millennials—if they can stop playing Pokémon Go long enough to take it in.
High school senior Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts) has played it safe her whole life. When she starts participating in an online game called Nerve, her wild night in New York City turns into the night of her life after she meets daredevil Ian (Dave Franco). But when Vee’s done with the game, she discovers the game isn’t done with her.
Nerve liberally borrows elements from other films with games played in their cinematic world—from David Fincher’s appropriately titled The Game to 2009’s Gamer. And, for millennials obsessed with SnapChat and Instagram, the idea of a game like Nerve (advertised as “truth or dare without the truth”) will strike a chord, as will the authentic examination of teens’ desire to record every single element of their life.
It’s almost a shame the film is rated PG-13 to appeal to this audience, as the suspense gimmick runs out quick. Despite urban legends of dead kids and crazy dares involving dogs and peanut butter, Vee and her friends never engage in anything that isn’t strictly dangerous to their bodies. For them, regardless of the fact they live in New York City, a playground perfect for all manner of illegal activities, the dares run from trying on a fancy dress to walking across a ladder suspended between two buildings, nothing the gang from “Jackass” wouldn’t attempt. It’s almost laughable that Vee’s friend, Sydney (Emily Meade) keeps screaming at her “watchers” to give her a good dare, and no one thinks of anything involving sex or drugs. Even in the party scenes—this is a film for the MTV set, so of course we’re treated to slow-motion gyrating imitating the Fast and Furious series—things are a bit too Sixteen Candles and less Eyes Wide Shut.
The first half hour yields some fun as Vee finds herself and tests her limits. Joost and Schulman keep things moving and New York certainly looks slick and colorful. The hipster atmosphere will definitely find fans among kids who think Wu Tang references and a white girl with the actual name of Venus Delmonico are the epitome of cool, all punctuated by a playlist of songs you’d hear on a reunion episode of “Catfish.”
Roberts and Franco have good chemistry, and Nerve sails on the goodwill of their affection. As the shy Vee, Roberts shows range beyond being a bitch. Roberts has the ability to be a great every-girl if given the chance. You might laugh at a girl like Emma Roberts being invisible in high school, but her humiliation at finding out the school football player doesn’t think she’s his “type” is palpable to anyone who’s been rejected. It was actually refreshing not hearing her have a verbal rapier handy every five minutes. Dave Franco proves he’s the more charismatic Franco, and though Ian has the bland generic story that sets things in motion, his smile is infectious, he rocks out well to Roy Orbison’s “You Got It” and he’s a good plant to entice Roberts’ Vee deeper into the world of Nerve.
With a game that seemingly appeals to the stupidest kids with nothing but time on their hands, the only way people would stay so long is money, right? Though Vee and Ian talk about helping their family, the money seems irrelevant to everything they’re doing. Vee plays Nerve to look cool, but with an added cash component it opens the door towards critiquing how this game functions. There’s no shadowy “big bad” behind the game, which turns the third act into a preachy sermon on internet bullying and an ending someone copied from Jurassic Park (don’t get me started on the script’s new discovery of terms like “dark web” and “open source”).
Roberts finds herself in a room akin to the “riff off” in Pitch Perfect 2, screaming at the anonymous watchers to reveal themselves in the script’s lame attempt to say that anonymity online has consequences and verbally harassing someone makes them an accomplice to murder. Maybe this was a unique message a few years ago, but it has all the originality of a chain letter on Windows 96. Do people’s online words have consequences? Hell yes. But the script has to make a very pointed statement when the game itself was more than enough to make that statement, believing its tween audience is too stupid to understand metaphors. Maybe they are, but the script gives the speech all the power of something written by a 12-year-old.
Had Nerve stuck to the intrigue around online games and their ability to test the limits of people’s personalities, it could have been an efficiently entertaining piece of cinema. And if it wanted to be a message movie about online harassment, that could have worked with some subtlety thrown in. The final third and it’s overly telegraphed message leave things sour and cheesy. The premise is already laughable on its own, but the minute “you become a prisoner to the game” is said, any tenuous connection to reality is lost, turning Nerve into The Hunger Games without the dystopia or anything passing for intelligence.