Released: August 2016
Aimed squarely at the teenage market, Nerve should be nothing more than a high-adrenaline thrill-ride through a series of bad mistakes. However, it’s taut script, fresh directing and believable actors turn it into a genuinely enjoyable careen through the dangers of modern technology when mixed with the age-old follies of youth.
A new game is sweeping New York, whereby you can either watch and pay people to do increasingly extravagant dares, or you can be the daree, agreeing to more and more outrageous things, building up both your pot of money and your cache with viewers. We follow two strangers Ian (Dave Franco) and Vee (Emma Roberts) as they take on challenges together that spiral way beyond their comfort zone.
There are things this film gets wrong- the ending is absurd, and replies heavily on the inner rationality of a large group of people, which even when for selfish reasons is often severely lacking, as the rest of the film has been at pains to point out. The characters are so swept up in plot and action that they never really develop into anything like real people, and the few personal details we do find out seem tacked on as an afterthought. No one’s phone freezes for a second.
For all that though, the things the film gets right are the elements that virtual thrillers so often get wrong. For a start, the graphics look like they’ve been designed by someone who might have actually used social media at some point in the past. Not even just Facebook and Twitter, but they might have even gone so far as to dabble in Twitch, the obvious platform analogy for the game. The on-screen depictions of messaging apps work to move the plot forward, and don’t distract or hold up the action. I’ve no doubt it will age terribly, but at least right at this moment it looks familiar enough you barely notice it’s intrusion on screen. The best thing about Nerve is that it’s all pretty much possible now, with just the programmes and devices we have. WiFi might be too patchy for the seamless coverage that happens throughout, but the nuts and bolts is all in place, making this feel like you’re watching something just a heartbeat away from existing now.
It also seems likely that the creators have met teenagers before, and their motivations, vanity and insecurities are writ large across this film. It doesn’t feel like an adult lecturing a reckless youth, it feels like a someone understanding how easy this is to get involved in. The lack of awareness of Vee’s mother is easy to understand from both sides- how could she ever work out what her daughter was doing online, and how could sensible, self-assured Vee ever tell her mum about the mess she had gotten herself into? The two leads play teenagers well, despite being clearly too old for the roles. Dave Franco is now in his thirties and while he probably can still get away with playing high school roles, he probably shouldn’t. The best-friend-who-might-not-be is admirably played by Emily Meade, showing the sudden cracks as she falls deeper and deeper into the desperation of trying to cling onto fame.
It’s also stylistically beautiful- every light seems to buzz like it’s made of old neon, and lots of uplighting reflects the look of people staring into screens. This is fun summer flick, but not one you need to switch off to enjoy. It’s easy to get involved with the power the game has on Vee and Ian, to find yourself swept up in peer pressure and adrenaline, petty rivalries with best friends and the points it makes about new tech and communication channels affecting teen life are salient and not preachy. If anything, this high-tech thrill ride relies heavily on features that have long been part of youth life- the desire to be liked, to be part of a group, to have your own identity and independence and the immense strength of character it takes to step outside of all of that. Mobiles and WiFi have just brought a new dimension to an old story.
Even you if ignore the real life implications of Nerve, it’s a fun adventure, with enough tension to sustain itself and paper over any of the small cracks that might be hiding behind the surface.