Pretty-faced high schoolers play a deadly online game of truth or dare in Nerve, a breakneck thriller inspired by the gutless, faceless, merciless keyboard warriors who spit venom at others on blogs, message boards, comment sections and any other dark corner of the internet they can weasel their way into.
This movie moves, and it moves fast: in rapid succession, it dishes out heart-stopping stunts and set pieces that will pleasantly surprise those going in expecting a bloodless YA romp. Plot, acting and dialogue range from mediocre to average, but it’s hard to linger on the movie’s myriad downfalls thanks to the quick pace it maintains throughout.
Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts) is a hard-working, level-headed high school senior who’s earned herself acceptance into CalArts. She hasn’t told her mom (Juliette Lewis) yet because she knows it’d break her heart if she left her to live alone in their little apartment (dad left a long time ago; brother died two years prior). Vee’s reckless best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), tries to jostle her out of her perpetual state of complacency by suggesting she sign up for Nerve, a secret online game where “players” complete embarrassing, often dangerous dares voted on and given to them by “watchers.” If a dare is completed, the player gains more watchers and has money deposited directly into their bank account. The crazier the stunt, the more watchers and money they’re rewarded. If they back out, they lose all of their earnings; if they call the cops, they’re forced to pay the piper(s) in gruesome fashion.
The first dare Vee tackles is innocent enough: In a neighborhood diner, she’s tasked with kissing a stranger for five seconds. The joint is full of gross-looking beer-bellies, but the smooch ultimately lands on young, handsome Ian (Dave Franco), who just so happens to be a Nerve player himself. The hordes of faceless watchers seem to enjoy watching the couple, so they send them on an all-night adventure together.
Initially, the dares are kinda cute: Early in the night, Vee and Ian are forced to escape a swanky Midtown department store wearing only their underwear (a scene unabashedly designed to make teens squeal and hoot at the stars’ hard-bodies). The dares get increasingly deadly, however. Late in the movie, we watch breathlessly as Ian’s feet dangle thousands of feet above the New York City streets as he hangs on for dear life (one-handed, no less) to a rooftop crane.
Nerve’s aim is to be about the ugliness of online fame, from the perspectives of both fame-hungry online stars and their bloodthirsty, faceless onlookers, but all of those ideas get sideswiped by the spectacle and absurdity of the onscreen action. It’s not an entirely bad tradeoff, considering the set pieces are filmed so well by directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost (Catfish). There are two showstoppers: One sees Vee guide a blindfolded Ian as he bobs and weaves through traffic on a motorcycle, accelerating to a target speed of 60mph; the other finds Sydney walking across a ladder propped between the windows of adjacent apartment buildings, several stories above the cold, wet pavement.
Death-defying onscreen feats are always better when the actors are good at selling the danger of it all, and Robert and Franco do a fine job indeed. The character work isn’t as convincing, however. Both have been much better in other movies. Roberts doesn’t bring enough vulnerability to the role, and Franco plays it too cool, especially in hindsight (a revelation late in the film makes his prior behavior seem a bit nonsensical). The best performance is a surprise and comes from the periphery: Cleveland rapper Machine Gun Kelly plays a slither rival player, adding a welcome bit of combustibility to the proceedings that no one else on the cast brings to the table. Parenthood star Miles Heizer is a standout as well, playing Vee’s nerdy best friend who, despite his friendzone status, proves useful to her in the end.
Nerve’s ending is, without a doubt, one of the most implausible, unexciting, poorly conceived things I’ve seen this year. It comes a pig’s hair away from ruining the whole movie, but MGK’s raucous performance thankfully buoys the scene. The timing of the film’s release couldn’t have been better, either, with Pokémon Goers swarming the streets and online trolls coming out in bigger numbers than ever. If only the movie’s ideas and grander statements were better fleshed out and explored more deeply, it could have easily been one of the sleeper hits of the summer.
Its messaging is half-baked and blunt, but Nerve still manages to be a solid YA thriller that boasts more than a few heart-stopping set pieces.