Vee (Emma Roberts) and Ian (Dave Franco) in Nerve (Niko Tavernise)
Nerve involves one of the great American pastimes: engaging in moral panics of technology. As such, it is a perfectly timed film that coincides with handwringing over the release of PokémonGo and the obsession it has created as smartphone users from 7 to 70 search the streets for errant Pokémon.
The smartphone game that Nerve centers around is a bit more sinister than a game marketed to children and those nostalgic for childhood, but its concerns stem from the same paranoia over technological intrusion that people have felt for decades, if not centuries, and Hollywood itself has exploited anywhere from The Net during the public introduction of the internet and even Sorry, Wrong Number back when telephones were still considered a somewhat novel technology.
The film stars Emma Roberts as Vee, a straight-laced high-school senior reluctantly settling to remain home for college instead going to CalArts as she would like. Her life is dull compared to her more outgoing, brash friends until she signs up for the hottest smartphone app, Nerve, which invites users to perform selected dares to earn cash. There, Vee meets Ian (Dave Franco), a fellow Nerve user that the application has essentially selected to be her partner-in-crime. As they continue using the game, Vee and Ian face increasingly dangerous dares that risk both their own lives and the lives of those they love.
The greatest strength of Nerve is that it makes an effective mix of the plausible and implausible. It is easy to believe that Silicon Valley would design an application where viewers interact with site users for cash, since sites like that exist in one form or another already, but Nerve takes it to an extreme that makes it effective cinematic entertainment. It is also what makes the film so well-timed to coincide with the Pokémon craze. People worry about the possibility that distracted users might be injured while on the hunt, but Nerve posits a game where the dangers come from accepting a dare to climb across a ladder spanning two buildings.
Roberts and Franco, both the relatives of far more famous Hollywood performers, are both skilled and appealing performers who make the most of roles that, based on the propulsive nature of the film, only require a modicum of shading. Emma has the same prickliness of her more-famous aunt, but is more tightly-wound and without the abundance joie de vivre that made Julia a superstar. This makes Emma different but not inferior, and much like her television roles under Ryan Murphy, Nerve uses her talents to greatest effect. Dave has much of the wild-card nature of his brother James – their near-perpetual squints seem as if they are hiding something – but his youth and tendency not to brood gives him an innocence that his more dissolute brother could never match. Both Roberts and Franco might be a bit too old for their roles (In real life, Emma is old enough to be facing her graduate school commencement, not her high school one.), but it is a minor quibble considering both actors’ charisma.
Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, best known for MTV’s “Catfish” (which itself is a screed against how technology can manipulate) and several Paranormal Activity sequels, direct Nerve with an inventive visual style that will inevitably seem dated but works perfectly as the time-capsule that this movie is destined to be. But what is special amount the movie, thanks to its creators and stars, is not the message that it tells but the way in which it does so. Nerve is clever, brisk entertainment that provides everything that mainstream Hollywood entertainment should. It is this, not the big-budget tentpoles that fill theaters, that defines what a summer movie should truly be.
In theaters July 27
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