Reviewer: Philip Price
Directors: Ariel Schulman & Henry Joost
Stars: Brian Marc, Dave Franco, Ed Squires, Emily Meade, Emma Roberts, Josh Ostrovsky, Kimiko Glenn, Machine Gun Kelly, Marc John Jefferies, Miles Heizer, Rightor Doyle
Released: August 11th, 2016
If the trailer spoiling the entire movie wasn’t enough and you still decide Nerve is worth a trip to the cinema you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised that it still proves to be (mostly) compelling. Despite ultimately knowing every beat this film is going to hit even if you’ve only seen a single trailer there is still something in the editing and overall emotional effect and where this wave of neon takes you in terms of a single experience that makes the film worth watching at least once. What that essentially means is that Nerve is not solely about getting from point A to point B and making sure the plot works which, considering the density of the details needed to understand the game is impressive enough, but more than that it focuses on the small moments in between those plot points allowing it to remain both compelling and more affecting than one might initially expect. One wouldn’t think a film made by the guys behind Catfish (as well as a few Paranormal Activity flicks) would transfer so well to full on feature-length narrative storytelling, but with a script by Jessica Sharzer adapted from Jeanne Ryan’s novel the filmmakers are able to tap into more than just the timely and relevant premise, but more the timeless relationships between high school students and the conditions of those relationships that being at that stage in life typically dictate. More than just another love story of sorts where the innocent/meek school girl takes the leap out of her comfort zone only to find a guy who she would have imagined was light years out of her league actually likes her for her-Nerve wraps its world in the dynamics between not only the young adults who are attracted to one another at the center of the story, but extends it to their circle of friends that tend to influence their decisions as much as their own minds. The fact the movie is about an online game with a countless number of viewers offering their “Likes” and comments only reinforces this mentality on a whole other (timely) level. By fleshing out not just the main protagonists and the game at its core, but rather by immersing viewers in this single night in New York City where neon can only mean more fun, exciting things Nerve overcomes its predictability and familiar story structure by giving us characters we care about.
High school senior Vee (Emma Roberts) is a mousy photographer with aspirations of going to CalArts despite the fact her mom (Juliette Lewis) is keen on her staying close to home after the loss of Vee’s older brother two years ago. Vee also has a crush on the obligatory football star and most popular guy on campus, J.P. (Brian Marc), who doesn’t seem to return her affections. This of course comes with the fact she has her own admirer she doesn’t give the time of day in Tommy (Parenthood‘s Miles Heizer) though some of that fault could land on Tommy as the guy has squarely placed himself in the friend zone. Vee’s lifelong friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), couldn’t be more different as she is the popular, outgoing captain of the cheer leading squad that never backs down from a dare. This mentality shoots Sydney directly into the throes of a new online game known as “nerve” where there are both “players” and “watchers” with the “watchers” more or less playing truth or dare with the “players.” If the players complete the dare they win money as the watchers have to pay to subscribe and watch their favorite participants. Naturally, the most daring players become internet famous almost instantly and Sydney is hard-pressed to resist a chance at quick celebrity. On the other hand, Vee immediately dismisses the game as being rather sketchy and something she would never do. That is, of course, until Sydney pushes all the right buttons on the wrong day and forces Vee out of her comfort zone and to try at least one dare. This single obstacle pushes Vee (with Tommy accompanying her of course) to a local diner where she must kiss a random guy for five seconds. Enter Ian (Dave Franco) a pawn that has clearly been sent to the same diner for purposes of the game as he holds a copy of Vee’s favorite book, Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” which the game knows after collecting information from her social media profiles. Teaming up with Ian, Vee quickly becomes something of a staple of the game while at the same time being able to temporarily fill that void in her life that her brother left and at the same time discovering a part of herself she didn’t know existed. That may all sound rather rote, but directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost know their audience and tap into those emotions and this frame of mind in a way that allows their film to feel genuine.
Though the story may ultimately turn in on itself Nerve has such a strong first and second act that it’s hard to fault the finale for not knowing exactly how to measure up much less surpass its earlier parts. It isn’t the story as a whole that matters so much here. I mean, sure, the rules and regulations of the game have to come off well and be understood for the audience to know what is going on, but while the plot is that these two young adults run through NYC playing a game of virtual truth or dare the story is more about the evolution of Vee and literally showing her growth as a human being in a single night. For all the cool visual treatments and ideas that Nerve has going on it is essentially a large character arc for our protagonist to explore while the game in which she is operating peels back the layers to show humanity (AKA the audience) more of themselves than we’d maybe like to see. It is in this sense that it becomes more clear than ever that Schulman and Joost not only know their audience, but are in tune with them and the mentality one has when looking at the world at that stage of life. Embodying these ideas in fine form are both Roberts and Franco. Roberts (who in real life is 25) looks the part of the shy and timid senior who’d rather take pictures of others experiencing life than actually experience it herself whereas Franco oozes the necessary charisma and intimidation to feel like someone Vee wouldn’t typically go for or even take second glance at. Franco’s Ian is made immediately endearing though as he is given something of a Heath Ledger/10 Things I Hate About You moment as he dances through the aforementioned diner, across the tops of tables, and sings Roy Orbison’s “You Got It,” It is one of those ephemeral film moments that only lasts a short time, but makes a transcendent kind of impression-taking audiences out of the moment and creating one all its own. For creating instances such as this it would seem Nerve genuinely taps into its target demographic beyond even their expectations, but that the film also supplies Heizer with the room to throw out lines like, “He thought those were our fries,” while snickering or Roberts reacting to Franco singing with the most harmless line reading of, “He’s singing to me,” ever and you have this sense of purely relaxed performances making for a movie that, as a result, is as unaffected and spontaneous as one would hope a movie about searching for that thing you want in life would be.
On top of capitalizing on this ability to embrace the youthful exuberance of this moment in the characters’ lives Nerve also makes some other cool impressions along the way that only allow for the film to become that much more appealing. For starters, the soundtrack has some really nice moments. Besides the Orbison nod there are also tracks from Melanie Martinez, Halsey, and Holy Ghost! that completely fall in line with the mood and atmosphere Schulman and Joost build. The tutorials that explain the game to both the characters and the viewers are expertly edited, flashy, clever, and pretty funny. They aren’t anything major, but one will enjoy them and then quickly move on without thinking or realizing how much in fact likely went into crafting such highlights. It’s the little things after all and that most won’t take notice of them is a good thing, but that the creators went that extra mile to put that type of effort into disguising exposition says a lot about the overall intent of the film and how keen they were on accomplishing as much. It is likely most won’t consider the fact there is no one bad guy in the film for it to pin the blame on either, but rather that it’s more humanity who will be held accountable when the game inevitably takes that nasty turn. Even this though, is addressed in a cool and logical way as the players and watchers provide the servers for the game and the game is viewed not only through the player’s phones but through the watchers who are able to track down and film the players themselves. With the neon everywhere Schulman and Joost use the extreme urban aesthetic to their advantage by integrating it into the stunts and dares allowing for some of the more extreme sequences-such as featuring a blindfold and a motorcycle-to be executed in genuinely tense fashion. Despite the fact Nerve loses some of its steam in the last half hour as the third act can’t match the energy or cleverness of the first two it is more the shift in tone than the fact the narrative itself takes a darker turn. The narrative could have still played out the same way, but that the movie shifts to a more self-serious approach is what undoes all the film has going for it. All of that said, Nerve couldn’t have come along at a better time taking the appeal of Pokemon GO and combining this type of experience with something like The Hunger Games, but what keeps it from going one of the two extreme ways it easily could have (super silly or overly preachy) is that it serves like more of a reminder of where things could go and how we can take things, good things and interesting advances, in the wrong way if we choose to, rather than a sermon about how terrible we already are.