Is there any happier accident than when a movie of its moment fledges at the exact right moment? You can’t engineer perfect timing on the backlot. That’s a mechanism of serendipity. To wit: If you’re the type to notice people glued to their screens and gadgets in public, you have no doubt begun to wonder of late whether they’re gawping at Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, like normal Jobs-fearing data devotees, or if they’re risking life and limb, decorum and dignity, to finally snag that goddamn Mewtwo. Pokémon Go junkies aren’t gaming, exactly. They’re living life through a digitized overlay like your garden-variety social media addict. The distinction between handheld amusement and pocket-sized gossip box is meaningful, but thin.
Nerve, the new film from Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, finds its premise tangled up in that distinction. Schulman and Joost, two of the minds behind Catfish’s brand of blurred documentarianism, have adapted their film from Jeanne Ryan’s YA thriller, and for reasons that are readily apparent after a quick synopsis overview: The title refers to an online reality video game where participants either sign on to play or observe. Players live by the whims of their followers, their “watchers,” and engage in dares of increasing risk with increasing cash rewards for completing them. For Schulman and Joost, that concept is red meat. You can almost hear them slavering behind the camera, mulling over the game’s legal and social ramifications as they routinely neglect to explore either in the fucking movie. They’re more interested in turning the online experience into cinema than examining what that experience means in any cultural sense.
Maybe Nerve is a better book than it is a movie, or maybe it’s a better idea than it is a story. You can do worse in theaters, mind, especially during the film’s gaudy and entertaining first and second acts, in which high school wallflower Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts) decides to break free from her bookish, hesitant personality and sign on to the game as a player. From there, she runs into and falls for Ian (Dave Franco), another player, and after teaming up they skyrocket in popularity as they knock out dare after dare, streaking through the hallowed halls of Bergdorf and racing motorcycles blindfolded on New York City’s streets. Nerve is the first instance in Franco’s career where he’s adopted a genuinely charming screen presence, and Roberts can’t help but be charming even when she’s being coltish. They’re a fun pair, and when Nerve fixes its attention on them, it’s surprisingly exhilarating.
But the film’s plot is as poorly structured as its stars are delightful. The keyword in Nerve is “escalation.” As Vee and Ian ascend the game’s ladder and slowly but surely become the only players worth watching in town, the gambles they’re forced to take become more perilous, if not to body than to soul. This is familiar territory for anyone who has seen 13 Beloved, its American remake 13 Sins, or E.L. Katz’s spectacular 2013 debut, Cheap Thrills, though comparing Nerve to any of these is unfair because it is fundamentally different on a molecular level: It’s a post-Social Network movie combined with YA tropes, where everyone equipped with a smartphone is represented with graphic captions that jut into New York’s skyline like neon flagpoles. Cheap Thrills is about rich people ruining poor people for giggles. Nerve is about the distancing power of online anonymity.
For the most part, it’s good at being that, until the narrative is written into a corner, whether by Ryan or by Schulman and Joost, and it must be written out using Deus Ex bullshit involving bots, hacking and the dark web. This is a film in desperate need of a good, harsh edit to scrub away unnecessary nonsense regarding Vee’s mom (played by an infuriatingly wasted Juliette Lewis), her nice guy pal Tommy (Miles Heizer) and, well, everything else that doesn’t contribute to the film’s vibe, which is best described as Detention by way of Unfriended, with a dash of Battle Royale and Nicolas Winding Refn’s electric color palette. More Franco. More Roberts. Less sanitization.
It’s unreasonable, and maybe even unfashionable, to demand carnage from a YA movie that isn’t set in a dystopian future, and the very thought brings us directly to the level of Nerve’s unforgiving watchers. But the genre’s kid gloves have been off for years, and a film like Nerve, a reflection of our logged-in, cyber-forward society’s inherent and innumerable dangers, begs for sharper edges and lasting consequences. Action should matter more here than it actually does. (If your protagonist tells off her best friend in front of nearly the entire literal world, then you should not let them reconcile 10 minutes later in just a couple lines of dialogue.) Still, the film is a real blast for about an hour and change, and Roberts and Franco have infectious chemistry to complement Schulman and Joost’s dizzying blend of filmmaking techniques. Nerve may be too safe for its own good, and too ignorant of its subject matter to be taken fully seriously, but at least it knows how to show us a good time.
Directors: Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost
Writers: Jessica Sharzer, based on Jeanne Ryan’s novel
Starring: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Miles Heizer, Emily Meade, Colson Baker, Kimiko Glenn, Samira Wiley, Juliette Lewis
Release Date: July 27, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.