'Nerve': Film Review

Visually engaging if not very convincing.

Emma Roberts and Dave Franco star in this teen thriller set in a mysterious online community.

Web platforms and smartphone apps are evolving so quickly that a game like Nerve seems like it might be available for download already. Combining live video-streaming functions and social media features, the fictional mobile application aggregates online communities of “watchers” who interact with “players” competing for cash by completing challenges that are originated by participants over a 24-hour period.

Described as “a game like Truth or Dare, minus the truth,” Nerve appears to have the potential to thrive on both the anonymity of online trolling and the widespread quest for instant celebrity. Risky and deceptive online behavior probably emerged soon after popular adoption of the internet, although broader recognition followed the release of films like Nerve co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s noted 2010 low-budget documentary Catfish.

With its attractive young cast and a multiplatform media campaign, Nerve won’t need to rely on going viral to find its audience, but it’s unlikely to be trending for long once viewers digest its simplistically cautionary message.

The issue partly is the filmmakers’ muddled social-engineering perspective that almost instantly transforms a teen with fairly average online habits into an impulsive daredevil with the mere adoption of a new app. Shy, responsible Staten Island high school senior Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts) has been comfortable living her life in the shadow of her much more outgoing best friend Sydney (Emily Meade), until Sydney challenges Vee to live a little for a change. Ignoring her university acceptance letter to art school and joining the Nerve community, where “watchers pay to watch and players play to win cash and glory” by accepting and completing dares that are broadcast to Nerve participants on the players’ smartphones, Vee meets Ian (Dave Franco) after targeting him on her first challenge to kiss a stranger in public for five seconds and win $100.

Not coincidentally, Ian also is a player, and the online watchers quickly pair them up to ride his motorcycle into Manhattan, where they complete a series of tasks that brings them escalating payouts into the thousands of dollars and sparks the possibility of romance (while getting Vee an unusual tattoo in the process). Vee begins to question her impulsiveness once it becomes obvious that the app has extracted an alarming amount of information from her digital footprint that may be putting her friends and family at risk in all-too-tangible ways, as well as her own personal safety.

Vee’s overprotective mom Nancy (Juliette Lewis) is chief among her concerns, serving as an extension of screenwriter Jessica Sharzer’s strategy of balancing tension between parental censure and teen boundary-pushing. It won’t be any surprise where the filmmakers come down on the issue of online excess, but with immersive virtual reality and artificial intelligence applications looming as the next major technological advances, all of the hand-wringing over the proliferation of selfie culture, celebrity fixation and unexamined over-sharing only emphasizes the appearance of a widening generational divide between early adopters and their ill-equipped imitators.

Fortunately, Schulman and Joost keep the film visually engaging by combining characteristics of videogame play, social-media interactivity and web-based video sharing with a heightened style that emphasizes DP Michael Simmonds’ neon-leaning nighttime lighting. All that busyness onscreen distracts somewhat from the impression that Roberts and Franco don't look much like teenagers, although they form a fairly good team as long as they’re pursuing specific challenges rather than sharing their nascent emotions for one another or attempting to unravel the intricacies of the game.

Distributor: Lionsgate
Production companies: Allison Shearmur Productions, Keep Your Head Productions, Lionsgate
Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Colson Baker, Juliette Lewis, Kimiko Glenn, Marc John Jefferies, Brian Marc, Samira Wiley
Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Screenwriter: Jessica Sharzer
Producers: Allison Shearmur, Anthony Katagas
Executive producers: Jeanne Ryan, Qiuyun Long
Director of photography: Michael Simmonds
Production designer: Chris Trujillo
Costume designer: Melissa Vargas
Editors: Jeff McEvoy, Madeleine Gavin
Music: Rob Simonsen
Casting directors: John Papsidera, Ann Goulder

Rated PG-13, 96 minutes