A teen thriller with mostly proper proportions of coolness and ridiculousness, Nerve has timely techie tension. It’s about an underground app that’s a secret viral game allowing paying watchers to vote on dares for live-streamed players to do for quick cash payouts. That’s scary enough as, given the Internet’s capacity for mob mentality cruelty and weaponized peer pressure, it’s not hard to imagine all the ways this game can go very wrong very fast. And you only have to look as far as this summer’s smart phone sensation Pokémon Go to see how the right reward structure can send hundreds or thousands of gamers out into public places for their own digital glory. The game in the movie, also called Nerve, is like a combination Periscope and cam site, filled with amateurs doing things for anonymous crowds who drool and banter in the comments section and happily fork over money for the privilege of voyeurism. The stunts grow increasingly dangerous, and our protagonist is progressively more vulnerable to the game’s clutches. The movie gets broader and flimsier as it goes along, but remains unnervingly plugged into ambivalent paranoia about our current technological moment.
Emma Roberts stars as Vee, a high school senior meekly pining over a football player and feeling down about her inability to afford moving across country for college. (It’d also mean leaving her single mother (Juliette Lewis) behind, and she feels responsible for keeping her happy.) When her wild best friend (Emily Meade), an avid Nerve player who just scored a payment by mooning a pep rally, embarrasses Vee for her timidity and indecisiveness, that’s the last straw. She decides to prove her bravery by signing up to play. In a scary moment, there’s a quick-cut montage of the app building her player profile by hoovering up data across other services: her Facebook likes, Amazon receipts, bank account information, and more. That’s not just part of the movie’s logic, getting her inextricably held hostage in this terrifying situation of escalating dares, but something we do every day when clicking “Agree” without reading the fine print. Who knows how much companies know? The movie is both smart and obvious about tech, like when her other best friend (Miles Heizer) answers a question about his coding knowledge with the tossed-off admission, “I spend a lot of time on the Dark Web.”
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, of Catfish and Paranormal Activity 3 (the best of that series), create a convincing world of connectivity, threading Unfriended-style screen-eye-view shots with a mood of neon glow and pulsating pop score, t then throwing superimposed comments, texts, and screen names onto frames. There’s cool clutter to its vision of modern communication. Vee heads out into the New York City night, where Nerve’s dares lead her to team up with Ian (Dave Franco), another player. He’s a motorcycle-riding, leather-jacket-wearing, sensitive smart guy, the better to somewhat neutralize the threat of zipping off with a stranger. (Besides, a low angle on them astride his blue-glow bike under aquamarine fluorescent lights is just about as cool as movies get.) This isn’t about real life stranger danger; it’s about the Internet’s dopamine hits of fleeting fame-iness overriding good judgment and common sense. Who doesn’t want likes, hearts, page views, hits, faves, views, and retweets? Vee and Ian shoplift, drive recklessly, hang from deadly heights, and more, all in the name of the attention, and the cash. The whole thing’s shady, but who cares? It’s fun for her, a live-on-the-edge coming-of-age, right up until it isn’t.
Eventually our leads discover the anonymous deviants behind Nerve’s coding have a stranglehold on players’ personal information. They could drain bank accounts. They could ruin reputations. The only way out is to win. The back half of the movie grows increasingly paranoid. American Horror Story writer Jeanne Ryan, adapting the book by Jessica Sharzer, generates tension like a YA version of The Game, albeit with a different twist. Everyone they meet – and everyone on the street, or in the background, or mingling in a crowd – might be a watcher or a player. The one-crazy-night After Hours set up grows creepier and more threatening, mining the disjunction between online speech and real world action as totally unaccountable watchers coax risky, even illegal, behavior out of players who can’t help themselves. (Most intense is Colson Baker as a player eagerly taking dares that lead him to, say, lie flat on the subway tracks.) In the end, Nerve’s conclusions are a bit easier and sillier than what the premise could’ve found, with a climax not nearly as tight as the opening acts, but the movie is filled with energetic and empathetic performers carried along by the filmmaker’s total commitment to a slick, scary, groove. This is a nervy, well-timed, cool pop thriller confection.