A film review by Craig J. Koban August 6, 2016

NERVE jj
½

2016, PG-13, 96 mins.

 

Emma Roberts as Vee  /  Miles Heizer as Tommy  /  Dave Franco as Ian  /  Machine Gun Kelly as Ty  /  Emily Meade as Sydney  /  Samira Wiley as Hacker Kween  /  Juliette Lewis as Nancy  /  Henry Joost  /  Ariel Schulman

Directed by Ariel Schumann and Henry Joost  /  Written by Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel by Jeanne Ryan

Considering the widespread and borderline fanatical popularity of the new augmented reality mobile game Pokemon Go, NERVE could not be released at a more topical and relevant time.  

It’s a new techno-survival thriller that involves its main characters insatiably partaking in a new mobile game that not only seems to typify our modern world’s smart phone obsession, but also the darker underbelly of addictive social media subcultures that lure in nobodies and makes them insta-celebs relatively overnight.  More than anything, NERVE is eerily accurate in its depiction of the youth impulse generation, one that’s willing to go to any lengths or accept any dare if it means swift online gratitude from anonymous – and sometimes cruel and selfish minded - Internet strangers that egg them on. 

Unfortunately, NERVE squanders its overwhelmingly interesting premise that’s positively ripe with potentially thoughtful commentary on the dangers and pratfalls of Internet privacy (or lack there of) and instead devolves into third act theatrics that invites incredulous mockery.  That’s a shame, because directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost (who previously made the documentary CATFISH) seem to have an understanding of the power that social media has in molding adolescents into craving immediate online notoriety, but they don’t seem equal to the task of embracing all of the possibilities of their ambitious minded film.  Even though it opens with a wonderfully assured first act, NERVE lacks…well…nerve in thoroughly exploring the darker side of its cautionary themes.  By the time the film careens towards its fairly ludicrously orchestrated climax that throws modest realism out the door and embraces heavy handed sermonizing and cheap melodrama, you’re kind of left pondering what kind of powerful and relevant thriller NERVE could have been with a much better re-write. 

 

 

The film’s premise, though, is a doozy.  As mentioned, NERVE concerns a popular online reality game called “Nerve,” which is the ultimate “truth or dare” (minus the truth) game.  The rules are pretty simple: After logging in you’re asked to either be a player or a watcher.  Players are asked to accept dares (from the watchers) in exchange for money being electronically deposited in their back accounts after successful completion.  Each new dare becomes more risky than the last, but the financial incentives also increase.  If a player fails…or bails…their game is abruptly over…and they lose all of the money they made up until that point in the game.  The worst offence is ratting out the game’s existence to the cops, which will result in an unspecified penalty.  Despite the fact that Nerve is the biggest mobile game around and seems to be played by every other person on a street corner, it perplexingly has gone unnoticed by the news media and law enforcement…just one of the film’s many nagging logical loopholes. 

One teen in particular from Staten Island, Vee (Emma Roberts), gets ensnared in the mad craze that is Nerve very early on.  Coaxed on mostly by her BFF Sydney (Emily Meade) – someone that has become limitlessly popular by playing the game – Vee decides that she needs to spice up her relatively mundane life and agrees to sign up for Nerve as a player.  Her first dare (kiss a stranger for five seconds in a diner) leads to her meeting Ian (Dave Franco), whom she quickly discovers is also playing the game.  The watchers decide that they make a very cute Nerve couple and proceed to issue both of them similar dares to participate in together, which takes them all through New York City on one outlandish – and increasingly challenging – dare after the next.  Vee becomes a natural at Nerve, which annoys Sydney, seeing as she wants to maintain her status as a number one Nerve attraction.  Predictably, not all is what it seems with this game, leading to both Vee and Ian discovering that Nerve may indeed have a potentially damaging effect on their futures and very lives. 

NERVE looks stellar.  Joost and Schulman utilize a lot of trick shots, energetic editing, playful usage of neon colors and composition, and graphical enhancements that frequently makes key scenes in the film feel like an augmented reality video game.  The story’s pacing is also unrelentingly swift and assured, never fully stopping to catch its breath and instead commits itself in a headstrong and assured manner without looking back.  NERVE is also highly observant of teen culture and the inherent dynamics of how youth form hasty cliques based on Internet correspondence.  More than so many other youth oriented films that I’ve seen lately, NERVE accurately captures how lonely teenagers superficially become extroverted when developing relationships online with faceless onlookers to their daily exploits.  In a way, the mirror that this film holds up to our contemporary times is kind of eerie and unsettling. 

NERVE also benefits from the charm of its two lead actors, and even though both Dave Franco and Emma Roberts are, to be fair, tier two performers of limited range that are usually more effective in smaller supporting roles, they nevertheless have great chemistry and keep the film afloat.  Regrettably, all of their performance goodwill and the generally stylish and evocative direction of NERVE can’t save it from its multiple logical gaffes that hurt my overall buy-in.  Now, most films require suspension of disbelief, to be sure; NERVE takes itself awfully seriously, but never seriously addresses the inherent shortcomings of its mobile gaming craze in question.  No one in this film’s universe, for example, suffers from battery drain on their smart phones, which we all know based on live social media streaming (which is required for Nerve) is a serious battery hog.  Ian and Vee have miracle devices that always stay juiced up despite their constant streaming.  Also, considering the vile nature of online trolls, why are none of the watcher dares truly lurid or reprehensible?  All of them in the story belong in a PG version of an otherwise hard R rated world of depraved Internet scum.   

As NERVE races towards its third act it's pretty damn clear that it feels more like head shaking science fiction that an exhilarating suspense thriller with real world trappings, replete with underground computer hackers, a preposterously orchestrated final dare-off between players at the top of the Nerve leader board, and an achingly heavy handed speech by one participant to an angry and bloodthirsty mob of watchers that hammers home the film’s themes of the dangers of Internet thrill seeking with a lame, blunt force obviousness.  NERVE started as a moderately involving parable that really idiotically cops out in the end.   On a level of achieving cheap thrills and having goofy fun with its premise, this film works in modest dosages as a semi-entertaining diversion film in a summer film season overpopulated by moronic sequels and unnecessary reboots.  That, in some ways, makes NERVE feel fresh.  What’s not fresh about the film is that it never compellingly examines its “big ideas” subject matter because it wallows in young adult film clichés and conventions.  There’s a very enthralling thriller buried deep within NERVE that’s desperately struggling to get noticed, much like the players of the mobile game within its story.  The filmmakers here just don’t dare themselves enough to fully commit to their story and all of its endless possibilities.

 

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