Nerve may be the timeliest movie of the year, but that title is one earned through practically no effort of the film itself. With the recent release of Pokémon GO breathing new life into mobile games and further fueling our culture’s interest in blending the digital world with the real one, Nerve comes across as a fictional story that could very well become a real possibility in the immediate future. It’s also one hell of a thrill ride, brought to life by two charismatic performances and an endless creative use of internet tropes that help to further sell the believability of the story.
‘Nerve’ is a web-based game that plays like ‘Truth Or Dare’ without the truth. Those who are invited to experience ‘Nerve’ must choose whether they will play the game or pay a small fee to watch others perform. Those who watch are able to vote on what dares the players must attempt, and those who complete their challenges are wired increasingly large sums of money. Who is on the receiving end of the Watchers’ financial contributions is never made clear, but in the end it doesn’t really matter.
Emma Roberts commands the screen as Vee Delmonico, an art-loving high school senior who is tired of being looked upon as a spineless rule follower by her peers. Vee’s decision to play ‘Nerve’ is a rash response to being made to look like a fool by her best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), who is already a dedicated ‘Nerve’ competitor. Her first dare requires her to kiss a stranger for five seconds, and through fiendishly orchestrated chance she chooses to approach Ian (Dave Franco), another player who is currently in the running to win ‘Nerve.’ Watchers love the chemistry between Ian and Vee, which is as apparent to them as it is to the viewing audience at home, so the game begins challenging the pair to dares that require them to work together in order to succeed.
In order to thoroughly enjoy Nerve one has to accept a certain level of flexibility with cultural and scientific logic. The game is allegedly kept secret thanks to a vague threat greeting new players that claims “snitches get stitches,” but seemingly every teen (and several adults) in New York City are well aware of its existence before Vee and her friends enter the fray. It’s also sold as an annual event, with the previous competition being held in Seattle one year prior, but the film asks that we believe in all that time not a single news story, social media post, photo, Snapchat story, or video has surfaced? You don’t have to be an expert in business or culture work to know that if thousands of people are playing a game for several hours on end every day the word will get out.
The biggest success of the film is its cast, who each find a way to add a degree of realness to their characters that isn’t necessarily required to make the movie work. Franco and Roberts are perhaps the best example of this, as their chemistry and energy feels boundless from the moment they each appear, but the smaller players deliver admirably as well. My only wish is that Juliette Lewis was given more screen time in her turn as Vee’s mother. Her work pulls you in with an emotional heft that, while underutilized in the big scheme of things, helps keep the story grounded as the risks involved with ‘Nerve’ begin to get out of hand.
Nerve, much like the game at the center of its story, is an intriguing exercise in revealing the worst aspects of human nature. It’s a metaphor not only for our greed as a culture, but also for the dangers of allowing mob mentality to dictate how individuals live their lives. No one joins ‘Nerve’ thinking they may be asked to speed through the streets of New York City while blindfolded, but if that is what the internet claims it wants to see then the game will search for someone to do it. I don’t know if that premise is as terrifying as the knowledge there would be someone, or likely more than one person, who would say they are up to the task.
The world we live in today is one where millions believe the exploration of desperation in the name of entertainment is OK, and Nerve at its best serves as a reminder that everyone, including me or you, has to decide whether they will go with the flow or take a stand for what is morally right. Do you stand with the anonymous haters of the world who spend their days dreaming up ways to ruin other people’s lives in an attempt to avoid facing the problems in their own lives? Or do you demand a certain level of common decency? Maybe you are the player, working to get ahead at whatever cost because you feel there is no other way to do what you need to accomplish. Whatever the case, Nerve is sure to entertain.