Pure millennial schlock, Nerve is a lot of dumb fun.
Nerve, the app-based thriller whose dares take peer pressure into the virtual world, has much more in common with the B-movies of the ’80s than the teen schlock usually shoveled at its audience. The film places its leads in a game with a set of rules and objectives well-defined enough to satisfying our need for coherency and vague enough to be foreboding.
First off, no snitching. No cops can know about the game. You sign into the app that allows you to choose to be either a “watcher” or a “player”. As an anonymous watcher, you pay a fee to spectate the antics of the players, but your money has direct influence over the dares they do. You can sponsor your favorite player to, say, steal a motorcycle or do live karaoke in a diner. The players receive dares from their viewers with escalating monetary rewards attached to them. You must keep completing dares to keep the money, as winner (most highly viewed) takes all in Nerve. If you bail or fail (as the game puts it) you get nothing, like a more openly sadistic, morally-flipped Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
While some have compared the game to virtual reality fare like Pokémon Go, the more accurate comparison would be to YouTube vlogger culture. Amassing a fan following through any means necessary, including prank videos, stunts, and oversharing, YouTubers that make money off their videos are always clamoring for the next big draw for their subscribers. How can they please their virtual audience and how can they attract more viewers? Commenters can ask for anything they want, hiding behind usernames and fake e-mails.
YouTube’s most notorious prankster, accused of crossing the line when he convinced his girlfriend that their three-year old had died in an accident (really), earned $2.5 million last year. Fame and money aren’t corruptors exclusive to the internet, but they’re certainly easier to get with it.
All this is to say that Nerve has a much more trenchant point to make than its often thin writing might lead you to believe. Especially since the film insists on shoehorning Vee (Emma Roberts, utterly charming as her giggly shyness evolves into self-suredness) into some high school coming-of-age nonsense. Vee is a bookworm who prefers the sidelines. Literally at one point, taking pictures of the football team and cheerleading squad. Her adventurous best friend and gateway into Nerve is Sydney (Emily Meade, with the hidden vulnerability of the “cool girl”) who, on the cheerleading squad, flashes the crowd on a Nerve dare. High school drama ensues, mostly to fill time, as love interests come and go and best friendships crumble only to be restored. This, along with a strange family plotline with her mother (Juliette Lewis, not really in the film), is filler.
The meat, the good stuff, the fun and flash, come from directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Their visual style grabs the internet with both hands and stretches it onto the big screen more successfully than anything but Unfriended (which took place entirely on a computer screen). Touch screens, text messages, phone calls, Facebook photo likes, and live-streaming video are the cinematic language in which Joost and Schulman are fluent. Paired with the neon underglow of Ian’s (Dave Franco, perfectly cast) motorcycle and the variously lit sectors of New York he and Vee travel to after they are paired up by their Nerve viewers, this is a uniquely gorgeous movie.
The stunts (including shoplifting, blindfolded driving, and climbing to great heights) are exciting, well-shot, and – if you happen to have a touch of acrophobia like me – will make your palms sweat. All the while, the grinning faces of these stupid twenty-somethings (or high schoolers, if you choose to pay attention to that part of the plot) remind you of the inevitable crash that’s waiting after all this escalation. It’s exhilarating with a dash of smugness, an argument against peer pressure through action.
That said, the worst part of the film is the final twenty minutes. Rather than having Vee and Ian (the perfectly beautiful people that viewers would love to watch) break free of the game by fighting within the established confines of the system – one of the only things that works within the Purge series, another millennial B-movie series – it brings in outside elements like hacking done by dull side characters. This falls into the same pit as the high school drama.
It doesn’t fit with the Call Your Shots Principle of B-movies (that I’m making up now). If a schlocky movie makes its restrictions clear from the beginning, say like Assault on Precinct 13 (survive the night), The Running Man (win the game), or The Warriors (make it to Coney Island), then we reach a more satisfying conclusion. It’s better to be great at set goals even if they’re easy than to bring in too many elements and be great at some.
In the end, Nerve does the latter. It’s spectacular at moments and spectacularly dumb at others, but ultimately still a lot of fun.