Call it love and danger in the digital age: NERVE wasn’t exactly what we were expecting. It was better!
You’ve seen the many Nerve dares on the posters and in the previews: Kiss a stranger, get a tattoo, move your way across some crazy heights, etc. And while that’s all well and good, this Emma Roberts-Dave Franco film is a story the exudes fun while retaining a smart, layered social commentary that we could all use, despite requiring a certain suspension of disbelief.
Emma Roberts is endearing as Venus Delmonico aka Vee, the quiet but talented high school junior who mostly lives in the shadows of her louder, more vivacious friends and under the weight of her brothers death. Like most teens, the Internet is a major facet of her life– in fact, we’re visually introduced to the character through her computer. In real life, Vee oozes repressive energy in social situations and watches her crush, J.P. (Brian Marc), from afar. However, her life changes when unintended humiliation from her trust fund wielding bestie Sydney (Emily Meade) causes her to impulsively join Nerve, a secret online game of dares in which anonymous “watchers” challenge players to take on various wild, dangerous, and occasionally illegal tasks for money.
During her first dare, Vee finds herself kissing a stranger by the name of Ian (Dave Franco), only it turns out it’s not a coincidence at all. Ian is also a player and the watchers brought them together for a team-up. The two head into New York City and at first, their assigned tasks are zany amusement. The first half of the film is raucous and funny– a fact that didn’t get much attention in its promotion, but added so much to the story. Vee earns fame and plenty of cash, along with sheer envy from Sydney, who is also a player. But as the game gets more devious and even possibly deadly, Vee realizes that there’s no way the watchers will simply let her walk away.
Emma Roberts carries Nerve with clever precision and a solid understanding teen audiences. This is the first time we’ve seen Dave Franco unlock his leading man potential and he does it with bravado and charm. The two have a great chemistry that makes you root for Vee and Ian, even when you’re not totally sure of the latter’s motivation and at times, the two are forced to keep secrets from one another. They’re clearly falling for each other and the Nerve watchers take advantage of that, just as they’ve taken advantage of every other detail of the players’ lives available to them.
The stars are surrounded by a worthy actors in supporting roles. Emily Meade’s Sydney was written as a spoiled friend who can’t handle Vee’s sudden meteoric rise in popularity. While Vee wants to use Nerve to prove something to herself, Sydney is constantly trying to prove herself to others under the veneer of being totally self-assured. But the actress’ insecure glances and quick grimaces add a humanized side to the character, who could have been straight-up insufferable. Miles Heizer brought the awkward laughs as Vee’s friend Tommy, an amateur hacker with a crush on Vee and some serious suspicions about the world of Nerve, responsible for tying in one excellent secret role that had audiences cheering. We also have to give kudos to Juliette Lewis as Vee’s well-meaning mom, who clings to her daughter– perhaps a little too tightly– following the loss of her son.
With a solid script and acting at its core, it’s the dares that will leave fans reeling. The Nerve game requires that all dares be filmed, therefore directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost deploy shaky cell phone video angles complete with glitchy screens and watcher commentary. Paired with realistic visual effects and the occasional point-of-view shot, it’s enough to give anyone a serious dose of anxiety. The dares themselves aren’t always realistic (as in nobody would successfully survive that,) but the cameras heighten your sense of doubt and worry in fascinating ways.
Another layer of narrative is the cautionary tale of the digital age. On top of what it learns during gameplay, Nerve bases its dares off players’ online fingerprint: their email account, their social media profiles, their bank accounts, etc. Knowing players on a personal scale makes manipulating them easier. But more than that, it’s a tale about the people who would do just about anything to be “insta-famous” and a scathing look at the worship of viral media. “When it comes to the Internet,” the movie seems to ask, “how far is too far?” In our opinion, this aspect of the movie keeps it firmly planted among teen and young adult audiences, as we can imagine it triggering that “damn kids and their cell phones” response from an older crowd.
However, it’s important to note that in order to fully immerse yourself in Nerve, you have to be willing to let go of some plot details. For instance, the game is allegedly run by watchers, but there’s clearly a creator and someone who directs the actions of the watchers. The movie never so much as touches upon this phenomenon. And while the game is intrusive and everywhere where digital technology exists, Vee still manages to find a hiding place when needed. Mostly, it’s small conveniences like the latter that help drive the plot forward. Forgivable, but not unnoticed.
Still, if you’re look that allows you to sit back and enjoy a few thrills among neon city sparkle and a synthpop score, Nerve will make you plenty happy this summer.
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