Considering teenagers and young adults make up a majority of US movie-goers, it seems odd that relatively movies starring teenagers make their way to the screen every year. It makes sense; teens more readily relate to adults than vice versa which limits the overall audience. Perhaps more surprising is the expected drop in quality when discussing a film starring teenage characters. For every Mean Girls, there are four DUFFs. For every Hunger Games there’s a Vampire Academy.
Nerve finds itself somewhere in the middle of the pack. It does most things right, but a few things wrong, and it adds up to a generally positive experience.
Emma Roberts plays slightly against type as a somewhat shy and insecure teen photographer named Venus (aka Vee). After a slight heartbreak and some very light bullying, she decides to become a player in the online dare game “Nerve”. Along the way she is paired with a mysterious stranger named Ian (Dave Franco) and the two find themselves falling down the rabbit hole of increasingly dangerous dares, competing with Vee’s more outgoing friend, Sydney (Emily Meade). The smart script makes Vee likable and interesting early on, giving an almost too concise introduction to her personality likes and wants. Robert’s performance is strong enough to carry the film and pull us into her world. Dave Franco, on the other hand, gives nothing more than the typical charming, tough but sensitive pretty boy shtick. Anyone could have played his role. The two of them have a decent amount of chemistry, but without the committed performance by Roberts this could have easily fallen flat on its face. The remainder of the cast gives adequate but uninspired performances, with the exception of Emily Meade as Sydney. I expect we’ll see more of her in the future in no small part thanks to this film.
Perhaps the biggest bit of praise I have for this movie is the largely un-sanitized depiction of the contemporary teen relationship with media. This is not a Disney Channel Original Movie about the dangers of the internet. Despite the PG-13 rating, this movie manages to hint at a number of more adult subjects. The infamous dark web is a key plot element in the film. Sex, drugs and alcohol are all presented in a mostly unflinching way. When we see comments posted by the watchers in real-time, they are often in poor taste or downright offensive, just like real life. I could see this movie scandalizing sensitive and delusional parents, but in the world of an uncensored internet, most actual teenagers will find the movie reflective of their reality.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman manage to create multiple tense and exciting scenes throughout the film that will keep even the most restless viewer engaged. Their style is straight-forward but effective, giving momentum to the character-driven dramatic scenes between the set-pieces. The dialogue is suitably young without being overly quippy. From a story standpoint, the film is by-the-numbers but never lazy or dull. While a few plot elements feel contrived (particularly towards the end), it is not out of place for this kind of film and doesn’t detract from the overall experience. There is no shark-jumping, literal or otherwise. There is a definite lull at the end of the second act, but it’s overcome by a mostly satisfactory ending.
The game of Nerve is taken to its logical conclusion, with most of the expected complications explored. The trailers gave away much of the story, and nothing you see there is really subverted. At the same time, it’s a fun ride. One of the more unrealistic elements for me was that the majority of players are teens looking for excitement. Upper-middle class teenagers would probably not be the main players in this game if it was real life. The monetary rewards would undoubtedly attract the poor and desperate. There could have been some interesting commentary here, but the movie eschews this to make it’s lesson more digestable. It’s much easier to reprimand fame-hungry teenagers than it is literally hungry grown-ups.
Despite the flaws, Nerve is a satisfactory thriller that raises a few interesting questions. There’s nothing too deep or terribly original on display here. But it’s a solid “what-if?” movie that delivers on its premise, and anymore that seems worth praising.