Movie Review: Nerve

Emma Roberts as Vee in "Nerve" Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

Emma Roberts as Vee in “Nerve” Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

Nerve‘s online game is like Pokémon Go, but with more risk. Think: Pokémon Go Play in Traffic; or Pokémon Go Set Yourself on Fire; or Pokémon Go Ahead and Try Not to Die …

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Ever since gladiators were pitted against lions in the Roman coliseum in 80 A.D., there’s nothing that compares to the bloodlusty entertainment value of live action competition. Just ask any rabid sports fan cheering from the stands at any game, any time, anywhere.

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish), with a script by Jessica Sharzer, based on the YA novel by Jeanne Ryan, Nerve is the latest in the string of films to play with the concept of real-time games that push the protagonist to the very edge of do-or-die.

Earlier films such as The Hunger Games (and its precursor, 2000’s Battle Royale), 2009’s Gamer, 1987’s The Running Man and 1975’s Rollerball reverberate – but here, the puppet master pulling the strings isn’t some overarching corporate villain. Instead, and perhaps more chilling, the powers-that-be are merely the thrill-driven groupthink of the teen gamers — known as “the Watchers” — who call the shots, amping up the game to impossible heights. The objective? To be entertained, above all.

Nerve opens on Vee (Emma Roberts), a smart high school senior who’s having difficulty locating her backbone. When she needs to approach her overworked mom (Juliette Lewis, in a thankless part) about studying photography at CalArts, she can’t. When she gets the chance to say “hi” to a boy she has a crush on, she can’t. When her gregarious best friend Syd (an affecting Emily Meade) tries for the umpteenth time to draw Vee out of her shell … no surprise, Vee can’t.

However, when Syd tells her about an online reality game called “Nerve,” Vee is intrigued. If she signs up as an active participant — known as a “Player” – then maybe she can break her cycle of shy. And maybe even win mounds of money to help pay for her tuition at CalArts. So what if she has to allow access to all her personal information? No big deal. She gulps. She leaps.

The ensuing YouTube-ian eye candy flashing across her computer’s monitor is mesmerizing. Quick camera cuts deliver glimpses of Players as they carry out such jaw-dropping feats as vaulting over subway tracks, jumping off cliffs, and performing impossible motorcycle wheelies. Vee’s fascinated … but assumes these daredevil activities have nothing to do with her.

Dave Franco and Emma Roberts in "Nerve" Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

Dave Franco as Ian, Emma Roberts as Vee in “Nerve” Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

In seconds, the game’s Watchers send Vee her first, fairly harmless “dare.” Will she kiss a stranger for a full five seconds? Her kissable stranger is Ian (Dave Franco), who just so happens to be another Player. Since their immediate attraction is obvious, the Watchers decide to team them up, devising increasingly dangerous assignments for them to accomplish in tandem.

Suddenly the reticent photography buff finds that her camera, which she’d always relied on to shield her from the madding crowd, has betrayed her. The camera has turned, its lens now fixing on her. Simultaneously thrilled and unnerved by the attention, Vee can’t quite recognize the girl whose face is appearing on screens everywhere she looks. The celebrity of the nanosecond, Vee is everyone’s and no one’s. And, in an ironic twist, she is once again missing a backbone.

Emma Roberts is highly appealing as Vee. From her bouncy kid turns (Nancy Drew, Aquamarine, Spymate) to Nerve, Roberts manages to retain her spark of humor, even in this twisty actioner. Dave Franco (Now You See Me [original/sequel], Neighbors [original/sequel]) delivers a character who projects a manipulative vibe at the outset. It’s unfortunate; Franco should have been allowed to create more complexity and nuance.

Michael Simmonds’ cinematography is a visual wonder. Manhattan acts as a bejeweled backdrop, intensifying the long shots tracking the Players’ travels. Superimposed columns of party-colored lights hover over the Players, their names emblazoned in flags flying at the top of these virtual poles.

Fragmented pixels are intermittently employed to break up the frame as if, like the avid teen Watchers, we’re also tracking the game’s action on our smartphones. It’s a clever construct, suggesting that we have unwittingly been inducted into the clubby world of Nerve as well. However, what sets us apart is that we are the meta watchers, watching the Watchers watch the action.

Emma Roberts as Vee in "Nerve" Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

Emma Roberts as Vee in “Nerve” Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise

In stark juxtaposition, the grungier locales are awash in dark grays and sickening greens, reflecting the city’s decay. It hews to the game itself: the lure of fame and wealth, versus an omnipresent undertone of failure and/or injury, with a nebulous threat of extinction merely one challenge away.

Directors Joost and Schulman masterfully pace the film, orchestrating the suspenseful action (akin to a blazing bandwidth on amphetamines) against some much-needed downtime.

Despite some illogical plot points, as well as an over-the-top monologue that falls flat as the film’s “teachable moment,” Nerve succeeds as a suspenseful, yet cautionary tale that speaks to the screen-centric Generation Z. Though societal concerns have been widely disseminated about such issues as online privacy, or misplaced priorities for virtual vs. actual life, a movie that works on multiple levels can resonate far more effectively. Hopefully, movies like Nerve … may actually touch one.

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Rating on a scale of 5 selfie sticks: 3

Release date: July 27, 2016
Directed by: Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman
Screenplay by: Jessica Sharzer
Based on the novel by: Jeanne Ryan
Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Colson Baker, Kimiko Glenn, Marc John Jefferies, Brian Marc, Samira Wiley and Juliette Lewis
Running Time: 96 minutes
Rating: PG-13

Here’s the trailer for Nerve:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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