Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman created a surprise sensation with their debut film Catfish, spawning a spinoff TV series and an additional definition in the dictionary for fake social media profiles used for emotional entrapment (scholarly!). For their second web-obsessed film the duo again spin a morality tale via social media, this time an adaptation of a YA novel, Nerve, about an off-the-grid “dark web” game that the kids are playing for cash or for voyeur fun.
Working with more budget and sheen here than in their first faux docu-drama, Joost and Schulman create a bedazzling visual coda and a nice little teen romance before things get third act bombastic and simplistically moralistic. What starts as something that’s as timeless and high school-y as Pretty in Pink (Pretty on Nerve?) becomes Pokémon Go meets The Purge. Phones don’t kill people, people do.
Nerve is an app game where users register as either a “Player” or a “Watcher”. Players receive dares from Watchers and receive a cash payment for completing dares. Extra information about every player is pulled from their various social media accounts as ways to get to know the Players, but also to use information and relationships against them. Players lose all their money if they fail. The dares escalate from kissing a stranger, to farting on people in Times Square, to laying on the train tracks under an oncoming train (kids, if you don’t already know the story of re-enacting The Program and aren’t aware of how deadly movie dares can be, let this be your warning here: don’t re-enact anything in Nerve past the scene where our heroes run through the mall in their underwear). Yeah, things escalate quickly.
Nerve also has a fervent fan base and those who are watching the game on their phones and wanna get close to the players are seen hopping in cabs to document the scene of the crimes, partying it up at a Watcher party and inviting the Players to do dares there, and ultimately scurrying around the streets like they’re catching invisible Pokémon. With such a following how do the police not know of the exploits? Why haven’t the parents been able to shut it down? Well, because this takes places on the dark web, “snitches get stitches.”
Like most YA stories our guide through this world is a nice young woman who has a name you don’t often encounter IRL, Venus (Emma Roberts). Venus (or bad girl “Vee” on Nerve) is a good student, loves photography and wants to get the hell out of Staten Island and go to art school in California but she’s nervous about telling her nurse mom (Juliette Lewis) who’s still coping with grief over her son’s recent death (and has already planned Venus’ first year of college as roommates). She doesn’t take risks. But her friends do. In a classic nice girl with friends on the wrong side of the track, her inner circle includes a cheerleader who flashes for Nerve money, Sydney (Emily Meade), a social media addiction enabler (Kimiko Glenn), and an explorer of the dark web (Miles Heizer).
Once Sydney starts moving up the leaderboard on Nerve she becomes less of a friend and more of a dare monster. When shy Venus won’t ask the boy who she has a crush on out, Sydney does it for her and embarrasses her, thus pushing Venus to become Vee on the dark web. To show that she can be daring, she signs up as a player. Her first task is to kiss a stranger. It turns out that her choice for lip locking was actually planted at the diner with a copy of her favorite book, a Nerve vet named Ian (Dave Franco). The Watchers take a liking to Ian and Vee as a pair and send them out on a series of meet-cute type dares. Logically, it’s a definite story miscalculation that the Watchers would prefer to launch them up the leaderboard because they like their chemistry and find them cute, while other people are dared to walk between apartment buildings on a rickety ladder, but Roberts and Franco are game and cute together in their getting-to-know-you dares that the Watchers set up for them. The Blood Orange songs swift them off to Manhattan and publicly out of their clothes and into the tattoo parlor and before you know it Sydney is one jealous Watcher.
Visually, Joost and Schulman pull a number of neat tricks out of the bag. They place a camera behind the computer screen, behind the phone screen, and use pop up conversations from the Watchers to push Vee and Ian closer (for validation makes the heart stronger, no?). Their director of photography, Michael Simmonds also films New York City’s streets and parking garages like the Players are inside the video game of TRON: Legacy, with aqua blue lights and Franco’s bad boy motorcycle swaying to a dream pop soundtrack.
With that extra visual flare and Roberts and Franco’s alluring connection, Nerve is able to maintain a John Hughes meets Hackers time warp of fun—for the first two-thirds of a film. But then things get over-explained and the need for cheap thrills revs up; then the teen narratives of romance and millennial addiction for attention that can ruin friendships all get tossed overboard. The game gets as big as The Game and the dark web that runs it is as easily accessible as The Net.
By the time Watchers become masked demons hellbent on blood, I checked out of this game. Things escalate quickly. And the moral, that we’re all culpable for what we do online, isn’t very novel. The teen time capsule things that Nerve does well is ultimately a “Catfish” for a laughable underground society who all meet up in a ridiculous Roman empire styled Gladiator match. By that point you’d prefer not to be a Watcher or a Player.
Nerve is in theaters today.