‘Nerve’ Examines The Digital Age Through a Thrilling Game of Cat and Mouse

Photo Credit: Lionsgate
3.5


Vee (Emma Roberts) is the kind of girl who’s always on the sidelines. Her friends are the ones who want to be the life of the party, while she’s content to sit back and watch. She comes to her breaking point though when she realizes that no one thinks she has a backbone and she decides to do something about it - by playing the latest craze online. The game, which acts as a high tech truth or dare, without the truth, pairs her with legendary player Ian (Dave Franco) and puts her on an adrenaline filled thrill ride that also becomes the most dangerous night of her life.

I went into this movie fully expecting it to be little more than a fun popcorn thriller to pass 90 minutes. I expected to roll my eyes at the antics of teenagers willing to do anything at the urging of social media. I also expected the plot to be pretty contrived and easy to see through. What I expected and what I got were two very different things. Nerve is surprisingly good. It’s the kind of thriller that fits perfectly in the digital age.

The game at the center of the story is a fictional open source software that allows “watchers” to pay to see their favorite “players” in action. The watchers are able to issue dares and the players have to act them out. Successfully completing a dare earns a sizable deposit to your bank account. And if the dare is too scary? You can always bail, but you also bail on all that cash you just racked up.

Nerve sucks you in in the same way that it sucks Vee in. The first few dares are harmless fun. Kiss a stranger. Sing in a crowded restaurant. Go try on a fancy dress. Anyone can do those if they’re motivated enough. It’s fun to watch this girl who has always lived in the shadow of her classmates start to push herself and break out of her shell. But it’s also tense because you know the fun can’t last forever. This is, after all, a thriller. And by the time the actual nerve wracking portion of the game comes into play, you can’t just walk away.

Lionsgate

Vee discovers just how dangerous the game can really be about three-quarters of the way into the movie as the watchers turn on her and her life becomes part of the game itself. I won’t give you a play-by-play on the bulk of the dangerous stunts that the main characters get up to because the tension is better served when you don’t know exactly what’s coming, but suffice to say that they will have you on the edge of your seat.

It might seem farfetched to think that a group of people on the other side of the computer screen can do so much damage, but if the age of social media and apps on every internet enable device has taught this movie’s target audience anything, it’s that there’s always someone out there waiting to put you in your digital place.

With Emma Roberts coming off the role of queen bee on Scream Queens, I had my doubts that she could play naive and wallflower-like Vee here. Roberts has done a string of roles to get out of that narrow girl-next-door persona she played as a tween and young teen, but she slips back into it effortlessly. She’s perfectly matched with Franco as well, who always seems like he’s hiding something even as you want to trust him as Ian. He’s fun and just what she needs to raise the stakes in the game.

Juliette Lewis is criminally underused as Roberts’ mother, but that tends to be the case when you’re a parent in a teen movie. The few moments she does get on screen are great and I wish that the family dynamic was explored just a little bit more as a result.

The movie’s climax is also a tad over the top for my taste, but it gets the point of the story home - just because you’re anonymous on the internet doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible for the things you say and do. Considering the movie is aimed at teenagers, it’s a message that works in the way it’s extravagantly presented. It’s done in a loud, dramatic way that tells the audience they can’t ignore it. If you’re outside of the target demographic, you might find it all a little much, but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it all the same.

There is, of course, a danger in marketing a movie like this to a younger crowd. If you show the movie in a way that’s meant to decry the pitfalls of anonymity and social media, are you showing teens a way to use it in a way to fuel reckless behavior? That’s an argument for another time.

Nerve is pulse-pounding and entertaining. Yes, it has a few flaws, but it’s definitely a thrilling way to spend 90 minutes.