Based on a 2012 novel by Jeanne Ryan, Nerve imagines a world where major metropolitan hubs become the backdrop to a reality game show broadcast over smartphones. The eponymous app advertises itself as “truth or dare, minus the truth,” a game where you’re a “player” or a “watcher.” Players venture into the streets to live-stream themselves completing the game’s dares: Kiss a stranger, then fart on people in Times Square, then ascend a construction crane atop a skyscraper. Watchers stalk them in the streets, and crowdsource subsequent dares. The game is an open secret, ubiquitous among the film’s millennial cast, but somehow unknown to the police and mainstream society, because “snitches get stitches.”
For all its similarities to The Purge, The Game, and Pokémon Go, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost’s film feels more like a barely logical expansion of the ingeniously self-contained laptop thriller Unfriended. Its characters are engaged in petty bickering, typical high school peer-pressuring, and life-or-death drama, but by signing up to play Nerve they’ve also unwittingly become actors in a reality TV show, prone to manipulation by tens of thousands of overeager producers. The film eventually devolves into a hectoring critique of voyeurs and groupthink, but for a while it maintains an air of ambiguity about its provocative and somewhat dystopian conceit.
And, in the manner of all YA dystopias, Jessica Sharzer’s script is populated by dull types. Venus (Emma Roberts), Nerve’s unlikely breakout star, is a mousy photographer bent on showing her friends (and herself) that she’s capable of being impulsive. She’s pined after by a cautious devotee of the dark web, Tommy (Miles Heizer), and her best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), is a Nerve fangirl and exhibitionist. Petrified to even leave her native Staten Island at night, Venus ultimately finds freedom in Nerve, Manhattan, and a mysterious hunk and Nerve veteran named Ian (Dave Franco). When watchers see sparks fly between Ian and Venus, they orchestrate dares that will bring the couple together and sew discontent between Venus and her IRL friends. Nerve instantly makes Venus brave, famous, and relatively rich, as every completed dare is punctuated by a deposit into her bank account.
By merely transposing its generic high school clique drama onto an augmented reality platform, Nerve sacrifices most of its novelty, but the filmmakers demonstrate a marginal interest in how this mediated environment warps the perspectives of its characters. DP Michael Simmonds, capturing a nocturnal and neon-tinted New York that feels sort of like a Gaspar Noé reimagining of Tron, is constantly changing formats: One shot will replicate a glitchy live stream with a simple but stimulating user interface, and the next will be a POV from inside the phone as a character touches the screen, but there’s still ample room for romantic montages set to dreamy pop songs and shots of teens grinding in high-def slow motion at a house party.
This everything-all-the-time aesthetic (complete with a clever stream of user comments) gives a dynamic sense of the allure and strangeness of online celebrity, but Nerve’s attempts at provocation are either cautious or absurd. The film is shakily framed around the notion that hordes of nihilistic voyeurs would be interested in orchestrating a carefully plotted love story: The dares Venus completes in her ascent up the leaderboard are wildly dull compared to those of her competitors. As the game finally escalates into higher cash-ins and serious stakes, Nerve abruptly and laughably confronts its topicality: privacy violations are bemoaned; watchers are unmasked as losers and criminals; Venus’s mom (Juliette Lewis) travels from her Staten Island home to a dark web live-work space in Manhattan in less than half an hour. Schulman and Joost, the creators of Catfish, have made a mint exploiting the web’s exploited dupes, but if Nerve represents a culmination of their studies, their message (guns kill, but so do phones) will have the longevity of a Snapchat.