2016, PG-13, 96 min. Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman. Starring Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Kimiko Glenn, Colson Baker, Juliette Lewis, Marc John Jeffries.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., July 29, 2016
This Dark Web thriller has a nifty premise: an interactive online game in which its adrenaline-kick participants accept increasingly dangerous challenges at the bidding of the anonymous voyeur-participants posing them. (The dangling carrot of prize money for live-streaming the stunt’s performance is an added incentive for a cash-strapped player when the stakes are high.) It’s a cyberspace variation on the party pastime “Truth or Dare,” except there’s no option to honestly answer a squirmy question in lieu of a provocative dare. Although slow out of the gate in establishing the interpersonal dynamics of a group of Staten Island high school seniors, the movie starts to buzz when the shy and slightly insecure Vee (Roberts) accepts the watchers’ challenge to kiss a stranger in public (Franco) for a hundred dollars. The experience is intoxicating for both of them – and you – as the risks they undertake crazily escalate (driving a motorcycle blindfolded at a high speed, for example) with each more lucrative round of the game. Until its heady but hard-to-swallow resolution, this heart-thumper lives up to its name. For filmgoers over a certain age, the idea of anyone completely immersing him- or herself, either as a player or a watcher, in a potentially life-threatening techno-diversion as the one depicted here may sound far-fetched. But for the PG-13 crowd hardwired to the internet, Nerve will jangle with a resonating and perhaps unpleasant truth. This movie taps into the plugged-in zeitgeist in a big way. Today, young people use cell phones to spot virtual Pokémons while driving, spend hours obsessively clicking “like” on postings of Facebook friends they barely know, and go online to watch others play video games rather than engage in the actual activity themselves. And that’s just the tip of the World Wide Web iceberg. It’s a brave new world that Aldous Huxley never imagined.
The finale of Nerve plays like a gladiator fight to the death in Rome’s Colosseum, with the not-so-passive watchers voting their thumbs up or thumbs down with the swipe of a screen. Directors Joost and Schulman (who helmed the 2010 documentary Catfish) generate some real thrills up to this point, so the film’s ambitious but untidy conclusion (“Say what?”) disappoints. Don’t try to sort it out afterward; your brain will only freeze up. It’s best to remember the preceding wild ride made all the more pleasurable by the winning turns by the leads. Up until now, Roberts and Franco have been second-tier actors in the industry food chain, but their first-rate performances in this better-than-average genre flick exude something called charisma. After this film, the two of them may graduate from watchers to players.