PLOT: A shy teen (Emma Roberts) enters a popular online game, “Nerve”, on a dare. After she’s teemed-up with a mysterious fellow player (Dave Franco) she becomes a virtual prisoner of the game, with the dares she’s asked to fulfill getting more and more dangerous.
REVIEW: NERVE continues directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s obsession with online social networking, material they previously mined – to great effect – with their “documentary” CATFISH and the spin-off TV show. Following their success with a couple of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY outings, Joost and Schulman, in this adaptation of the young adult novel by Jeanne Ryan, have been able to make a genre movie that’s more in-tune to their CATFISH sensibility. The result is a film that – while often predictable – is energetic and quite fun in a teen fantasy kind of way.
This fantasy aspect is elevated by the casting of Emma Roberts and Dave Franco in the leads. Twenty-five year old Roberts is tough to swallow as a shy seventeen year old, with her bombshell good looks making one scene, where a jock seems horrified at the prospect of going-out on a date with her, unintentionally ludicrous. As for Franco, the fact that he’s thirty gives this an uncomfortable vibe as it’s never spelled-out exactly how old he’s supposed to be. This gives the relationship an icky vibe, although his somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach to the part makes it a bit more palatable. Nevertheless, they don’t look anything like teens, nor does Roberts’s on-screen BFF, played by Boardwalk Empire’s Emily Meade. Teen movies these days usually cast actors within a few years of teen-dom, but this feels like a 1980’s approach, when you had a near-thirty Kevin Bacon playing the lead in FOOTLOOSE.
Maybe it would have been a better idea to tweak the book’s plot a bit and make Roberts’s lead college-aged, but even still she gives a likable performance and it’s clear that her arc on Scream Queens has really helped make her come into her own as an actress. She’s far better here than she would have been if they had actually cast her at seventeen, and she plays-off the grounded Franco quite well.
It’s interesting that NERVE has come along at the same time as Pokémon Go, with people even more obsessed with the smartphones than usual, making the premise not too based in fantasy. It’s actually not difficult to imagine a game such as Nerve, where someone like Roberts’s character must complete a series of dares, with her getting large sums of money (and instant online fame) for each task she completes. At first, these challenges range from innocuous (kiss a stranger) to naughty (walk around a department store naked) to life-or-death scenarios, as shown once the movie makes a sharp detour into Mr. Robot territory in the third act.
While often illogical (a game like Nerve wouldn’t stay underground or uninvestigated for long) Joost and Schulman keep it moving at a fast clip, integrating social media into the movie in a way that shows they actually understand it, as opposed to films where it’s awkwardly shoe-horned in. Their eclectic soundtrack choices also liven things up, with Franco being introduced singing Roy Orbison’s “You Got It” and a lovesick pal of Roberts’s driving around the city listening to Benny Mardones’s soft-rock classic “Into the Night” – along with some fitting EDM cuts. While this is not as anxiety-inducing as the two directors probably intended, NERVE, for all its faults, is never boring and often quite a lot of fun. With a game cast, some nice, crisp visuals and a propulsive pace, NERVE, while maybe too low-key to get much attention theatrically, could well catch-on once it hits online platforms like Netflix.
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