FILM REVIEW – NERVE. With Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Colson Baker. Written by Jessica Sharzer. Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman. Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving dangerous and risky behavior, some sexual content, language, drug content, drinking and nudity-all involving teens. 96 minutes.
Back in 1997, David Fincher directed Michael Douglas in “The Game,” in which an ordinary man finds himself caught up in a weird sort of competition where his very life may be at stake. NERVE plays like an adolescent version of it, although it apparently has a number of predecessors including a Thai horror movie “13: Game of Death,” its American remake “13 Sins,” and Jeanne Ryan’s original novel “Nerve.”
The premise is that there is this online game called Nerve. If you’re a “Watcher,” you pay to watch the competitors take increasingly dangerous risks. If you’re a “Player,” you can win larger and larger sums of money by accepting dares. It might be to kiss a stranger. Or it might be driving a motorcycle blindfolded.
Our focus is Vee (Emma Roberts), a high school senior who leads a somewhat cautious life due to the death of an older brother and an overly protective mother, Nancy (Juliette Lewis). Her friend Sydney (Emily Meade) is a player who chides Vee for not even talking to the boy she likes. So, on a whim, Vee signs up as a player and is soon on a night of dares, accompanied by fellow player Ian (Dave Franco). As things escalate we know that a showdown of sorts is coming, but that won’t be spoiled here.
Instead, let’s focus on how the film is so focused on the visceral dares–and the undeniable charm of its two leads–that it throws logic out the window. Put aside that we never get any sense that anyone’s in charge. The dares, the cash payments, the cameras in flying drones… these all seem to be done by a computer program. But consider that this is a “game” where people are risking their lives and the lives of others in cities all over the country. We learn of a horrific death that took place in Seattle. We see literally hundreds of people in all walks of life, not just teenagers, paying to be “Watchers.” Yet somehow this is flying completely below the radar of authorities, even with a climax involving numerous people on Liberty Island (where the Statue of Liberty is) after hours. This is property controlled by the Federal government, yet there’s not so much as a guard on site.
This is, in short, preposterous. So we have to be willing to not only suspend disbelief, but check all critical thought altogether if we’re to buy this premise. If you’re willing to do so, it does have the benefit of being a fast-paced 96 minutes. You just have to focus on Vee’s evolving dilemmas, and treat them as no more “real” than a video game. The climax, which involves keeping information from the viewer until after the fact, tries to make a point, but it has been done much better elsewhere. Fans of the series “Orange is the New Black” will get a kick out of seeing Samira Wiley as an improbably convenient character known as “Hacker Kween,” but that doesn’t make it any more credible.
So treat “Nerve” as an amusement park ride. You don’t ask if a roller coaster has a coherent plot or well-developed characters. You just get on and enjoy the thrills. If you can do that, you can take the dare.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.