by Jacqueline BorwickImagine the classic childhood game of truth or dare elevated to life or death extremes. That may give you a sense of the premise of Nerve. In an internet obsessed world, “Nerve” is an online game where users opt to be either a watcher or a player. The players receive dares which are then broadcast live online and viewed by the watchers; the more people who “watch” you, the higher your assigned ranking in the game is. The true objective is to get into the top ten rankings. “Nerve” normally attracts adrenaline junkies and voyeurs, but then along comes Vee (Emma Roberts), an unlikely player who uses the game to force herself to come out of her shell.
Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, the directing-duo known for their contributions to MTV’s resident docu-series Catfish, reunite to direct their first feature film together. They successfully bring their own creative sensibilities to this romantic thriller which, notwithstanding the overused “the-internet-is-a-dark-place” concept, produce a story that is fresh and original. The frame rate, pigments, and cinematography give the movie that appearance you often see when you look at older films on a high-definition TV — they somehow feel almost too realistic, like the actors are right in front of you. But the effect is that the viewer feels like a “watcher,” like a participant in the game in this case.
Vee is a senior in high school who is at a crossroads, trying to decide whether or not to pursue art school. She is indecisive about this major decision, torn between wanting to strike out on her own and the fear of leaving her overbearing mother and home on Long Island to attend the California Institute of the Arts. As a photographer who regularly shoots for the high school football team, she hides behind her camera while admiring her crush, J.P. (Brian ‘Sene’ Marc), from a safe distance. It’s evident that she knows what she wants to do with her artistic gifts but needs to find the courage to go for it.
Pressured by her friends, particularly the provocative Sydney (Emily Meade), Vee gives into temptation, and tries the game, which becomes the catalyst for her leaving her shell. It quickly becomes apparent that the dares range from playfully innocent to increasingly dangerous — geared to exploit one’s fears or crack their conscience. Her first dare is to kiss a stranger, Ian (Dave Franco), who becomes her companion and love interest in the unfolding thrill ride. And this pairing is no accident. As the watchers see their chemistry, they begin to receive joint dares, each one tougher than the last.
In one dare, Vee is sent to an expensive department store in New York City, where she is sent rapid fire dares alongside Ian. One of the dares calls for Vee to put on a sparkly green mini dress and for Ian to don a suit and tie. Once they return to their dressing rooms (after recording the dare in the main shopping area), they discover that their clothing and personal items have disappeared. The next dare, requires them to strip down to their underwear and run through the store and exit without getting caught.
Their adventure takes place over the course of an evening, with the city as their playground for mayhem. Successfully attempting to mirror the charged environment of the bustling metropolis and the unpredictable nature of the game, Nerve moves at a frenetic pace, fueled by consistent tension and adrenaline-inducing energy.
The film is an entertaining character study about what motivates teenagers to push the limits when attempting to fit in or stand out. In this particular game, each teenager has his or her own reasons for participating and depending on how radical, or even honorable, their reasons may be, their lives could be at stake.
But the film is also a study of the dark and voyeuristic world of the net, where your bank account can be filled or emptied by a hacker at will. It suggests that those at the edge of this technology are thrill-seekers pushing the envelope to the point of realizing life and death consequences. It also suggests that the net creates a herd mentality in which all our morals are lost — a mentality we have seen in real life, for example, during the Holocaust.
Despite the dark themes, this film is a refreshingly indulgent, bombastic romantic-thriller with a fun and unusual style that has a lot of heart and depth at its core. Emma Roberts’s sincere performance as Vee is impressive and leaves us with the incentive to step out of our personal comfort zones and take a chance. But a word to the wise — don’t do it while thousands, if not millions, of anonymous, faceless people are watching your every move.
4 out of 5 stars