The game of “Nerve” is absurd and preposterous, so it’s only fitting it exists in a film that’s just as absurd and preposterous. It’s an online version of truth or dare without the truth, so sayeth the game’s robotic host. You can sign up as a watcher or player, with the former instigating the dares and the latter partaking in them. Those who sign up as players have all of their sensitive information collected in order to give the watchers an idea of what they’re afraid of. This also serves as the moral of the story, that sharing sensitive information such as credit card info is dangerous in the world of hacking, phishing, and pharming. Said moral is told in silly fashion as it always is in these technological thrillers.
What makes “Nerve” absurd isn’t its premise, but the implications surrounding it. We are to believe that the game resides in the dark web, where it has evaded the attention of both the government and the police. It is meant to be kept a secret, yet also lives and breathes on word of mouth from watchers. It’s implied that only a couple thousand people know if it, yet the entirety of both Staten Island and New York City (which is coated in neon) seem to be digesting it, not to mention cities like Seattle that get namedropped constantly. At this point, one wonders why it wasn’t set in the post-apocalypse a la “The Hunger Games,” that way the absurdity is more befitting of the morality.
“Nerve” isn’t set in the post-apocalypse but in present time and we just have to deal with that. We also have to deal with the flimsy elements in which the game is predicated on. Once I was willing to suspend my disbelief, I was accepting of the concept. It’s silly and insipid, no doubt, but it also serves as a digestible slice of exploitation.
The dares brought upon by the watchers range from the sophomoric to the treacherous. Innocuous dares such as eating dog food and mooning the crowd while cheerleading is peppered throughout the first half of the film. These run their course within seconds and I was thankful to see more precarious dares arise (and I’m sure that makes me a savage like the watchers). Some of these include using a ladder as a tightrope from high-rise to high-rise, hanging from a crane thousands of feet in the air, and going sixty miles per hour on a motorcycle…blindfolded. There’s not too much variance between them, but they’re all exciting.
Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman frame the dares almost like found footage. Players must film their dares on their cell phones, making already perilous tasks such as balancing oneself on a crane all the more dangerous. Intercut is footage from the phones of the watchers, as well as the occasional professional shots from traditional cameras. There’s even static and distortion one would encounter from their phone’s video feed from time to time, which is a nice touch. It can be jarring cutting back between all three, but it complements the frenzied nature of the game. I wish it would’ve stayed true to the found footage angle during the dares, as they’re more riveting when the POV makes the viewer feel as if they’re engaging in the act.
The screenplay, written by Jessica Sharzer and adapted from the novel by Jeanne Ryan, provides the game with two likable players. They are Vee (Emma Roberts) and Ian (Dave Franco) and, once they get past their stereotypes (she the shy girl and he the mysterious loner), they make for engaging avatars. Roberts and Franco strike up solid chemistry together, so much so I would’ve been fine with scrapping the “Nerve” game itself and focusing on the blossoming relationship between the two. Emma, who had a promiscuous relationship with James Franco in “Palo Alto,” has a more suitable one with his brother, Dave. The two complement one another, with his confidence bringing out hers and her sensitivity bringing out his. While other players in the game, such as Vee’s friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), are obnoxious, these two are relatable and endearing.
Making Vee and Ian’s travails through “Nerve” all the more absorbing is that their dares befit them. Even the asinine dares, such as the kissing of a stranger that brings the two together, is suitable for Vee. She’s shy and the watchers know that, so of course her dares would break her out of her shell. Some of the more dangerous ones, such as the aforementioned blindfolded motorcycling, are excused as bloodlust from the adrenaline junkies that make up the watchers, but we (slightly) believe Vee would agree to them to not only prove herself, but to obtain the money to free herself from Staten Island. While she may be partaking in a stupid game, she is presented as intelligent throughout; just easily manipulated.
Other motivations for Vee, such as on overprotective mother (Juliette Lewis), the death of her brother, and the disproval of her smitten best friend (Miles Heizer) serve only to drive the story along. They’re all undercooked, which serves as a problem during the insipid finale. It’s a finale equipped with a limp moral compass and resolutions brought upon by ludicrous hacking that makes the world of “Hackers” seem grounded and well-defined. I’m more forgiving of the latter, seeing as it how fits the exploitative tone, but the former is too hackneyed and forced for its message to be properly conveyed.
I’m not in the target demographic for “Nerve.” It’s tailor-made for teenagers looking for mindless escapism. Even when I was a teenager, this wasn’t geared towards my taste. The dialogue is too peppy, the motivations contrived, and the pacing too erratic. Yet, I found myself cackling from time to time at the peppy dialogue and even got caught up in the dares. I grew to care for Vee and Ian, even when they were restrained by the limitations of the genre. As a morality tale, “Nerve” is feeble. As exploitation, it’s surprisingly competent.
Final Rating: B-