As far as young adult adaptations go, Nerve (based on a novel by Jeanne Ryan) at least has the nerve to set its dystopian story in the very near future rather than the far flung post-apocalyptic wastelands popularized by The Hunger Games and subsequently pulverized by the bungled Divergent series and this year’s nonstarter The 5th Wave. In doing so, this movie takes on the risky necessity to ground a relentlessly silly premise amidst the recognizable minutiae of contemporary high school and its technology obsessed teens. Ultimately, this is not a gamble that pays off without a hitch, as the script never lands on just how far to establish or distance itself from real life and by the end defies any logic it builds for itself. Still, the film’s near-delirious vision barrels through its thin script with some surprisingly tense scenarios and a blunt yet vivid depiction of social media afflicted madness.
This is not a movie for those who get distracted by logical inconsistencies, and I mean that as a sincere warning. In each and every wrinkle of Nerve‘s goofy core concept, of a website in which anonymous ‘watchers’ put up increasingly ludicrous amounts of money in order to see daredevil ‘players’ pull off increasingly ludicrous dares, there’s an untold number of reasons why this system could never, ever work in real life and sometimes doesn’t even make sense within the framework of the film world. This thing requires an advanced suspension of disbelief to enjoy, which is why it’ll play best to the teen/pre-teen demographics it’s targeted at. What they’ll find is a great deal of wish fulfillment as Vee (Emma Roberts) and Ian (Dave Franco) are forced into an escalating series of ridiculous challenges, for far more cash than most teens will make at shitty summer job and far more likes than their Vine and Tumblr accounts combined will ever get.
Vee and Ian are bland characters with very little distinguishing features, but they’re the kind of blank slates with qualities just identifiable enough for young audiences to easily slip into their shoes. Emma Roberts is the shy girl who secretly wants to let loose, an appropriately vague stand in for every teen girl ever. Dave Franco is the thrill-seeking, hot and don’t-forget-sensitive guy that the average boring teenage boy would want to see themselves as. And for the incurable 4chan nerds in the audience there’s even Tommy, a sad-sack coder who has a crush on Vee and gets to prove himself the only way he knows how: by hacking the mainframe. Okay, fine, Tommy sucks and his character’s redemption is garbage, but the point is that this movie’s stupid wiener kids are exactly the types of surrogates needed to efficiently and effectively engage a massive teen audience.
It’s easy to recognize all of this for the shameless teen pandering it is, but the surprising thing is how much effort the cast and crew put into making sure that the film runs at a brisk pace without feeling forced or preachy. Regardless of how generic the characters are, the actors play them with an unexpected level of sincerity and verve. You almost, kinda sorta can’t tell that Emma Robert and Dave Franco are actually 25 and 31 years old. Roberts in particular manages to be both moody and spunky at the same time, bringing a level of charisma that was direly lacking in Kristen Stewart’s Bella Swan and at times even Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. Franco is as Franco does, but he definitely brings a sense of physicality to a movie that is all about constant momentum.
That momentum is attained thanks to the work of directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, whose names you might recognize from 2010’s entertaining, reality show-spawning maybe-documentary Catfish and two acceptable Paranormal Activity sequels. These guys know how to take sequences that sound lackluster on paper and find a way to make them feel dynamic and suspenseful. In Paranormal Activity, they conjured up some good scares by simply attaching a camera to an oscillating fan. In Nerve, there are not one but two scenes in which characters walk across a ladder suspended between two buildings. Unambitious directors could let the green screen do all the work for them and call it a day, but Joost and Schulman decide to cut between steady-cam, handheld and cell-phone POV to add a sense of immediacy an disorientation, as well as an ever-present undercurrent of voyeurism. It’s inspired filmmaking in a movie that at first seems to be anything but.
While each consecutive set-piece is given the same spirited treatment, the plot is based on an escalating sense of ridiculousness, and the need to deliver more and more insane dares ultimately comes at a price. The story, which begins with a basic (and slightly-outdated) but more or less identifiable look at high school dynamics, gradually leaves reality behind before sprinting into a final half-hour that is so dumb even thirteen year olds may find themselves struggling to defend it. The main theme of the movie — the potential dangers of both anonymity and transparency online — is never particularly subtle throughout the film, but in the end it becomes so heightened in its depiction of ‘the evil of the internet’ that it’s likely to accomplish the opposite goal and draw plenty of mean comments on YouTube. Not to mention that on a basic plot level, the ending is a toothless, rushed and unsatisfying cop-out.
Nerve gets many things wrong, mostly pertaining to its script. Instead of settling on a tone, the movie spends most of its time flailing around trying to cement its own identity. In that way it’s kind of like the modern high school experience it wants to depict, but not exactly in a good way. Despite its messy execution, at its core the film achieves what it sets out to do, emulating the type of escalating excitement that comes with going viral and obtaining ballooning view counts that many teens fantasize about but only a very select few actually get to feel. That sense of new-age wish fulfillment may not appeal to everyone, and in fact it’s not meant to, but it’s easy to appreciate how the movie tackles the notoriously tricky world of social media (see the Clinton campaign for example’s on how wrong it can go) and actually manages to create some light, goofy fun in the process.
Score: 3 out of 5