Directors: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Screenwriter: Jessica Sharzer
Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Samira Wiley, and Kimiko Glenn
The first thing Nerve wants you to think is, “This could so happen today.” The second thing Nerve wants you to think is, “Wait a minute…isn’t this happening today?” With the advent of mainstreamed augmented reality video games like Pokémon Go, Nerve strikes, well a nerve!
The film opens with Vee (Emma Roberts) demonstrating to the audience the immersive digital universe that engulfs the teenager. We adopt her perspective as she navigates her computer. We see her surf the Internet, post to her social networks, and carry on a FaceTime conversation with her friend Sydney (Emily Meade) all while trying to draft an email to an Arts School in California that has recently accepted her as a student. The conversation with Sydney introduces the online game called Nerve that encompasses the rest of the film. Sydney invites Vee to be a “Watcher” for her in a virtual game of truth or dare where “Players” all compete to gain Watchers who dictate dares that Players must complete. Players who successfully complete Watchers’ dares, gain money and fame all in a quest to come out on top for a huge pot of cash at the end. Nerve also plays by Fight Club rules in that this game exists in the shadows. All Players and Watchers are sworn not to reveal the game and its goings on to authorities.
Vee’s proclivity for being a wallflower and never taking risks makes her a perfect selection as a Watcher for Sydney, an outgoing and uninhibited foil to Vee. However, after an embarrassing incident at a diner, Vee decides to act rashly and become a Player to prove she’s not so passive. When she accepts a dare to “Kiss a Stranger” she selects a young man named Ian (Dave Franco) who unbeknownst to her is also playing Nerve. When the Watchers see Vee and Ian, they like what they see and start daring them to complete tasks together as a team. Vee is drawn to Ian but also to the attention and excitement, causing her to accept teaming up with Ian.
Of course, nothing is ever what it’s cracked up to be. Vee’s friend Tommy (Miles Heizer) warns Vee that Nerve is dangerous, but she throws caution to the wind as her Watchers begin to add up. What follows is an entertaining and at times fascinating little narrative about fame, technology, and youth culture. Roberts and Franco are actually quite good in the lead roles. They may be closer to 30 than 18, but they play these roles very well. The supporting cast including Heizer, Meade, and Orange is the New Back alums Samira Wiley and Kimiko Glenn are also great. The casting of Juliette Lewis as Vee’ s mother seems like an afterthought, but it’s good to see her take some time off from her band and show up in a movie again!
Directors and best friends, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman make Nerve more vibrant and visually stunning than one would expect from traditional YA fare. The color scheme is laced with neon and feels energetic and vivacious. Joost is maybe most famous for his installments in the Paranormal Activity franchise as well as the viral sensation Catfish and its subsequent television series. I do not hesitate to say that Nerve is Joost’s best work by far.
On the other hand, I’ve never been more disappointed in an ending for a movie. Not because it was bad. It was fine. But if the ending was as principled and interesting as everything that came before it, we’d have a much better film. Oddly, this is another element Nerve shares with Fight Club. Prepare yourself, I’m going to go on a little diatribe about the parallels between Nerve and David Fincher. In my opinion, Fight Club’s ending was so nonsensical, ridiculous, and over-the-top that it negatively impacted everything David Fincher had set up and built before it. Fincher’s film that preceded Fight Club was a film called The Game, coincidentally about an underground immersive game played by unassuming people in the real world. It too was a tense, exciting movie that completely fell apart at the end. Nerve fits right in with the David Fincher model. It is tense, it builds, it is creative, it has some great style, and then BOOM, it gets ridiculous. Fincher would go on to botch the ending of Panic Room after Fight Club only to finally get an ending right with Zodiac in 2007. That’s 20 years of bad endings. Joost is a newby, but if you’ve seen Paranormal Activity 3, Paranormal Activity 4, and the film Catfish, you’d see where I’m going with this. David Fincher is awesome; I love his films, but those few bad endings really leave a gash in his filmography for me. I’m not sure if Joost is the next Fincher, but he clearly is influenced by him and should maybe take note that he didn’t burst on the scene with a film like Se7en, so we’re unlikely to wait 20 years for him to make a solid film.
First two-thirds: A-
Last third: C-
Overall grade: B-
Nerve is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes.