Like i-LIVED, Nerve is a mutation of the escalating dare game scenarios of 13 Tzameti and 13 Game of Death, retooled for the era of Pokemon Go and brushfire social media crazes. Scripted by Jessica Sharzer (American Horror Story) from Jeanne Ryan’s young adult novel, it benefits from the zeitgeist-surfing enthusiasm of directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who segued from the trend-naming documentary Catfish to a couple of Paranormal Activity sequels and fun, engaging performances from the slightly overage stars.
Smart but shy Staten Island teen Vee (Emma Roberts) has a momentary spat with her more daring best friend Sydney (Emily Meade) and impulsively signs up for Nerve, a smartphone game in which players accept crowdsourced dares for money. The game hooks Vee up with Ian (Dave Franco), a veteran player with a dark past. After she kisses him in a diner and he performs an impromptu song and dance, they go on a wild ride in New York –escaping from a posh store in their underwear, Vee getting a tattoo (a lighthouse in honour of her favourite book, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse), Ian riding a motorcycle blindfolded at 60 m.p.h. in city traffic, etc. Vee’s nurse Mom (Juliette Lewis) is out of the loop, but her crush-nurturing male best friend (Miles Heizer) keeps track of her course. Sydney is annoyed to be outdone by her former sidekick – which leads to an infodump exchange of cruel truth-telling character assassinations – while Ian is marked by an even more out-there, reckless player Ti (Machine Gun Kelly). Most takes on this theme get dark early, but Nerve lightly skims the surface, playing as a teen meet-cute hijinx comedy with sinister undertones and, unusually, some depth for peripheral characters who might be fulfilling stereotypes have their own affecting arcs. Vee’s embracing of her wild, fun side also means becoming estranged from longtime friends.
In the last act, the horrors come to the fore as Vee learns there are three categories in the game – player, watcher and prisoner. Snitching to the cops means being reassigned to the latter role, where challenges can’t be refused or a hacker collective will destroy their lives. It winds up at an arena where masked, anonymous watchers egg the last trio of players on to murder – and a moral lecture gets delivered between plot twists. Roberts and Franco have goofy charm to spare and Joost-Schulman frame them with a fast, restless, click-through style that puts this in a league with Unfriended and Open Windows in matching cinema approach to trending subject matter. A risk of this sort of thing, of course, is that it’s dated by the time the review embargo is up – it arrived just after Pokemon Go peaked – but a nugget of universal character stuff remains meaningful. It doesn’t have the Fast & Furious budget for action, but stretches to good suspense sequences involving dangling from high places.