There’s a killer idea circling this tricked-up teen thriller, which is more than you can say for most summer movies. But the idea never lands because Nerve lacks the, well, nerve to follow through on its convictions. These days, with Pokemon Go turning smartphone app users into digitally-led zombies, a film about a livestream online game that dares its users to risk their lives for likes, follows and cash rewards couldn’t be more timely. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who had us all questioning our web contacts with the 2010 documentary Catfish, seem like just the dudes to take our obsessions to the next level with the fictional Nerve.
Working from a jargon-savvy script by Jessica Sharzer, who adapted the 2012 novel by Jeanne Ryan, Joost and Schulman kick things off promisingly. Are you a watcher or a player? The game demands an answer, so watch what you swipe. The watchers have to pay to observe the players — public humiliation is a hot ticket in Snapchat America. Emma Roberts stars as Venus “Vee” Delmonico, a shy Staten Island high-school senior who’s too intimidated by everything from her mother (Juliette Lewis) to life itself to be anything but a watcher. It’s her best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), who’s not above flashing her butt to a crowded stadium to up her Nerve score, who goads Vee to get her game on. On her first go as a player, she’s dared to share a kiss in public with a stranger named Ian (Dave Franco). And, none too convincingly, she starts to reveal her daredevil side.
It works at first. Cinematographer Michael Simmonds shoots the dares with vertiginous style and glee; one skyscraper stunt is King Kong crazy. That’s a cue for the filmmakers to escalate the tension — so too bad that what really escalates are stupid plot tricks. By the time Vee and Ian head into Manhattan on Ian’s hog, things have turned deadly. That also goes for the film’s logic and pacing. Roberts, 25, and Franco, 31, are too old to pass for teens, but they bring a scrappy charm to their underdeveloped roles.
Digital surveillance is every bit as present in Nerve as it is Jason Bourne, but the former underestimates the ability of its millenial audience to do its own thinking. As a movie, it gets off on the highwire fun of living on a dare and then pisses away its provocations by lecturing us on the loss of privacy and the fragility of identity, topped off with a metaphorical take on social media as an STD. What a buzz kill.