The first thing you have to know about Nerve, Lionsgate’s adaptation of Jeanne Ryan’s rather prescient 2012 YA novel, is the ending doesn’t really work at all. The second thing you have to know about Nerve is you won’t really feel too let down by the ending because the journey getting there is so surprisingly well-made and entirely of the moment [insert obligatory references to Pokemon Go, Periscope and Facebook Live].
The basic plot is almost too plausible for comfort. Vee (Emma Roberts, who could probably play this role in her sleep) is a repressed high school student with a love for photography, a scholarship to an art institute across the country she’s too afraid to attend and a mad crush on her school’s star football player. Her best friend Sydney (Emily Meade) is obsessed with a new online reality game called Nerve, where watchers dare players to do things like kiss a random guy for 5 seconds or mess with Times Square tourists by asking them for directions while making loud fart noises through an app on your phone. The more dares you complete the more money you win, but if you bail you lose everything. If you snitch to the cops as the dares get progressively more dangerous you’re instantly disqualified. Nerve is meant to be kept secret, so much so that no one even knows who created it or who is in charge.
You win the game by completing every dare thrown at you, and picking up followers along the way as you live stream all of your actions with your cell phone. By the end of championship night, the two highest-ranked players face off for one last crazy dare.
It’s entirely the type of thing Vee would normally have nothing to do with. However, after a “the cute boy doesn’t like me” high school drama moment she takes Sydney’s advice to actually take some chances with her life and signs up to be a Nerve player. She moves up the rankings rather quickly after a seemingly chance encounter leads to her partnering with fellow Nerve player Ian (Dave Franco, starting to break out of older brother James’ shadow).
And that’s where Nerve crosses over into a compelling intersection of ideas and genres. On the one hand, it is Before Sunset with a modern tech twist, one wild, magical night on the town shared between two relative strangers who form an emotional connection along the way.
On the other hand, it is a Ray Bradbury/Philip K. Dick-esque sci-fi parable warning us “beware technology.” Not surprisingly, the first half is more entertaining than the last half. The pivot away from thrill-seeking and handholding to somewhat heavy-handed messaging and Saw-like imagery is exactly as abrupt and awkward as you’d expect, not entirely in a “well, that’s exactly what they were going for” kind of way.
However, the cast, with supporting parts filled out by Juliette Lewis (Vee’s mom), Miles Heizer (Vee’s best guy friend) and Colson Baker (as a fellow player), and co-directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost (best known for Catfish) are to be commended for holding the film together. Schulman and Joost, in particular, turn this into one of the most provocative mainstream films of the year. They take everyday tech tasks which would otherwise seem internalized or mundane, such as composing emails or interacting with a smartphone app, and bring them to life on screen about as best as you possibly can. Moreover, they blur together traditionally filmed conversations and action scenes with pop culture montages and sequences which appear to have really been filmed by Dave Franco and Emma Roberts holding smartphones or GoPro cameras.
Of course, this isn’t The Truman Show we’re talking about here where every single shot was meant to be achieved through one of the various hidden cameras in Truman’s world. Schulman and Joost aren’t quite that consistent or dogmatic about it, which results in a couple of jarring transitions where you might ask, “Wait, who’s camera is that shot coming from?” However, you’ll barely notice or have time to ponder such a question as the film barrels forward and wraps you up in its sweet sympathy of big city visuals, lovestruck characters and toe-tapping pop songs which sound lifted from some killer Spotify playlist.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Hollywood is littered with the corpses of films which dared to warn us about technology and came off as impossibly alarmist and ill-informed. Think Sandra Bullock’s The Net or Denzel Washington’s Virtuosity. Perhaps Nerve will similarly feel quaint when looked back upon 10-20 years from now, but in the moment it feels remarkably timely, teaching its teenage target audience that “the Internet is neither good nor bad; it just depends on how you use it.” Of course, some will simply come away wanting to play Nerve for real, and others will be wrapped up in the film’s sweet-hearted detours into new love and frayed friendships.