Henry Jost and Ariel Schulman try to show audiences what goes on when young people are buried in their phone screens seemingly ignorant of all that is going on around them in their dare themed thriller Nerve.
I must admit that it saddens me to use the term “young people” in the introduction to this review as it is becoming more apparent to me that I have long lost touch with certain trends and how younger people communicate with one another. Assuming I was ever in touch with it in the first place. Arguably not but I’d like to think I have some idea.
Emma Roberts plays Vee -short for Venus-, a high school senior on the cusp of moving into the big bad world to pursue her dreams. She’s a talented photographer but has certain things holding her back such as an overprotective mother who hasn’t found a way to cope with a recent tragedy and a best friend who is happy to have Vee live in her shadow.
A new craze is taking off called “Nerve”, a game where people are dared by users to do something random and be rewarded with money should they complete the dare. There are rules around it such as losing everything if you give up or fail and facing dire consequences if the authorities are told about it. The film doesn’t spend much time on these rules but they do come into play periodically.
The film is far more concerned with having fun with the various dares. Vee is a good surrogate for the audience as she starts off as a shy and retiring young woman but becomes progressively bolder as she starts to enjoy behaving in ways she never imagined she could. For Vee it’s liberating and she becomes somewhat addicted to the admiration she receives as she goes along with what she’s told to do.
Emma Roberts is great in this role and is constantly proving herself to be a really interesting actress. She more than carries the film while managing to be a likeable presence for the audience to follow. Vee’s character arc is entirely predictable but it’s pretty clear going in that there will be few surprises here.
The dares themselves are entertaining and the anticipation of what they will come up with next does carry the film. As you might expect they start off innocently enough such as kissing strangers or trying on expensive clothes but quickly take a dark and disturbing turn while forcing Vee to question her actions as well as her life choices. These character beats fit in organically with the story so there are no problems there and Emma Roberts manages to anchor this all nicely.
She spends the bulk of the film interacting a stranger she is partnered with named Ian (Dave Franco). He does a good job here but his main role is to support Vee as this is her story rather than his. It’s good to see a film like this where a well rounded female character has a male sidekick rather than the other way around. It makes the whole thing feel far more unique and it’s all the better for it.
Franco and Roberts have decent enough chemistry and their scenes together are a lot of fun. The mysterious past of Franco’s character could have been done without but it doesn’t overpower the film too much. It remains Vee’s story up until the end.
The execution of this is pretty varied but a lot of it works really well. I do think that Vee moves too quickly from being shy and retiring to confident and adventurous. The transition is a little jarring as she gets on board with the idea a little too easily. Once it passes that and gets to the point where she will do anything it’s fine but it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that she gets to that point.
In terms of storytelling the whole thing moves along at a nice pace and remains entertaining throughout. It doesn’t quite stick the landing in wrapping the whole thing up but most of the material before that is strong enough. The darker turn comes across as a little sudden and feels forced when it happens despite knowing that it will inevitably come. It’s a fun ride to get there but the ending does start to feel like a different film.
On a visual level I found the film really interesting. The neon-lit glow that fills almost every scene makes the film feel somewhat glamorous with hints of darkness as well. After a while the neon becomes a warning that things are about to become dangerous and the film pulled me into that mindset before I even realised that is what the intention was.
Much of the film is seen through phone cameras which seems like it would be painful but it works really well to promote the voyeuristic nature of Nerve as a game. People love to watch other people and do so through their phones most of the time. It’s a simple visual message but comes through so clearly.
There are also plenty of shots that feel like the phone or computer looking out with reversed text and hidden code manipulating the events. It’s an interesting choice as it makes the reliance on technology by all of the characters in the film feel unnatural to the point that it becomes sinister.
Nothing in this film will test your brain in any significant way but it does have some interesting social commentary in there. I’ve already mentioned the youthful obsession with phones which in turn makes social media a cornerstone of life as a teenager. The film frequently makes the point about the dangers of putting personal information online in ways that aren’t all that subtle but it’s a point well made all the same. “Nerve” is an extreme case of that but is Pokemon Go! really so different? One to think on!
Things like acceptance and the notion of celebrity are tackled as well. Up until the point the film starts Vee has been living in the shadow of her friend Sydney (Emily Meade) and has tolerated it out of a desire to be accepted somewhere. It clearly affects her and the experience opens her up to what she might have to offer and what she is capable of doing when left to her own devices. It’s an interesting comment on imbalances in friendships and how people can get swept up in situations that don’t really suit them. Again, it plays out in predictable ways but the point is real and relatable.
Vee’s exploits in the game turn her and Ian into instant celebrities adored by many which obviously taps into the idea that people can become famous very easily for doing very little. That fame being fleeting is part of it as well and the film explores that in equally obvious ways. One thing that was definitely frighteningly realistic was the venomous comments from people feeling invincible due to their anonymity.
The timeframe for this happening is ludicrously short but I appreciated that the film was trying to do so many different things and provide relevant social commentary when it could have so easily been a mindless romp.
A really entertaining film with a superb leading performance from Emma Roberts and some genuine attempts at relevant social commentary. Much of it is on the nose but the attempt is more than appreciated and the points made are more than valid as well as being explored fairly well. The story has few surprises and it doesn’t quite stick the landing in wrapping it all up but the entertainment value makes up for much of this and it’s a visually interesting film as well. You could do a lot worse and it might make you consider how much can be Googled about you.
- Emma Roberts
- some interesting visuals
- creative dares
- a solid attempt at relevant social commentary
- a predictable plot
- the ending not quite working