Don’t let Wikipedia fool you: while Nerve’s wiki page describes it as an “action crime techno-thriller survival film”, the movie is a horror at heart.
That’s not to say it’s terrifying or that it doesn’t contain hints of “action crime techno-thriller survival” in its lifeblood. But beneath all the technological teen talk and pomp, it has the cold eyes of a horror film. Attractive young people end up in situations that could more than likely kill them, and we’re meant to enjoy the danger. What else would you expect from the directors of Paranormal Activity 3 and 4?
Nerve tells a story that I thought was impressively original until I found out that it was based on a 2012 young adult novel of the same name. It follows Vee, an awkward high school student who gets caught up in a nefarious online competition. The game is Nerve, where “watchers” watch and record “players” performing increasingly unsafe real-life dares. Players receive dares from watchers, and if they succeed, more watchers tune in to monitor and dare specific players.
Oh, and the players with the largest watcher followings can win insane amounts of money for their escapades. Quite an attractive bet for the rebellious teenager.
From the first minutes, Nerve’s most attractive and unattractive qualities are immediately evident. Attractive is the movie’s savvy approach to a plot revolving around online activity. While the cinematography is frantic and unimpressive 80 percent of the time, the shots and effects that integrate the human world with its virtual counterpart are sharp. Unlike many modern films, social media buzz complements the physical world rather than intruding into it.
Unattractive is the insufferable “teen pop” vibe that drowns out every character and conversation. It’s not just the annoying soundtrack: Jessica Sharzer’s screenplay mistakes writing dialogue FOR young people with writing dialogue LIKE a young person. Every character is a thinly drawn high school stereotype: we have the repressed girl (Emma Roberts) who acts out to prove herself to her sexually promiscuous best friend, the nerdy guy friend who plays a supporting role, the selfless hunk (Dave Franco) who’s capable of anything — we saw The Hunger Games and all its clones, we get it.
And can Hollywood please stop casting gorgeous actors and actresses in the “shy and homely” role? Never will I for one second believe that Emma Roberts would be the ugly friend.
The rest of Nerve is stuck in an uncomfortable contradiction. Once the dares elevate to life threatening, watching youthful confidence stare foolishly into the face of death becomes heart stopping. These stunts are legitimately exciting and carry the majority of the film with exuberant verve, similar to how most horror movies are carried by sporadic scares. But when Nerve tries its hand at social commentary it unintentionally exposes its hypocrisy: it criticizes the Internet’s obsession with demeaning human life for entertainment, but then does exactly that to stay entertaining.
It’s like if a standard horror movie condemned watching horny teenagers die for fun.
Nerve can’t stand up to its own mission statement and its ridiculous finale never lets the narrative coalesce into a sensible whole, but the movie offers enough light horror to distract from its many shortcomings.
★★½ (2.5 out of 5)