Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Material involving Dangerous and Risky Behavior, some Sexual Content, Language, Drug Content, Drinking and Nudity – all involving Teens
Directed by: Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman
Written by: Jessica Sharzer
(based on the novel NERVE by Jeanne Ryan)
Starring: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Machine Gun Kelly, Juliette Lewis, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Kimiko Glenn & Samira Wiley
Based on the young adult novel of the same name by Jeanne Ryan, NERVE is a movie that sounds ridiculous and then seems increasingly realistic when you browse through YouTube videos made by teenagers. We live in a world where teens willingly corrode their lungs with cinnamon, pour vodka into their eyes, wrap themselves in duct tape, dump ice-cold water on themselves, and climb to dangerous heights all for the sake of online popularity. Is an online game where teens win cash by completing perilous dares really so hard to fathom? NERVE isn’t original. Films like EAGLE EYE, WOULD YOU RATHER, CHEAP THRILLS, 13: GAME OF DEATH and many others have tackled the same sort of danger-for-money premise. This film is just doing the same shtick with teenagers and wound up being a middle-of-the-road experience for me, but I can easily see it playing well for its target demographic.
Vee (Emma Roberts) is a timid high school senior. She’s introverted and prefers to sit quietly (e.g. obsessing over her crush) as opposed to getting up the guts to be more assertive (e.g. asking him out). When her obnoxious adrenaline-junkie best friend Sydney (Emily Meade) starts becoming a popular presence in an online game called “Nerve,” Vee decides to uncharacteristically take the plunge into this dangerous dares-for-cash game. Though it’s sketchy as hell, Vee soon finds herself flourishing in the dangerous online competition and making tons of cash. She also begins to fall for newfound Nerve partner Ian (Dave Franco). Soon, the dares become more perilous and it’s revealed that you can’t just walk away from Nerve. Vee finds herself in a dangerous world of anonymous individuals who just want to see teenagers complete high-stakes dares…even if it winds up killing them.
Let me address the elephant in the room. No, I’m not the target demographic for NERVE. This film was clearly made with a teenage audience in mind and it banked at the box office due to plenty of high school students who paid to see this film. Even though the movie isn’t original and didn’t fully work for me, there are admirable qualities that save NERVE from being just another cheap teenage cash-in. First of all, the performances are pretty good. Emma Roberts is well-cast as the nerdy shy girl and comes off as a convincing high school senior. Vee’s story arc is believable as she embraces her wild side and manages to keep shreds of her integrity intact. Dave Franco is also solid as her ballsy partner and (unfortunately) cheesy love interest. Emily Meade is appropriately bitchy as the popular girl, while Juliette Lewis is a welcome presence as Vee’s mother. Also, rapper Machine Gun Kelly’s performance is a noticeable step up from his agonizing stint in last year’s VIRAL (which was among the worst films I sat through in 2016).
NERVE is entertaining and fun for about two-thirds of its running time. For all of the clichés and silliness, I enjoyed watching dumb teens put in potentially life-threatening situations. The script’s humor worked as some of the earlier challenges are comedic and the suspense grew as the dares became riskier. There were two sequences that had me on the edge of my seat and there’s definitely something to be said for those quality moments. Even the sappy romantic angle feeds into the story’s darker side that slowly rears its ugly head. However, this movie’s final third is where things stopped being fun and began to bore me with been-there-done-that techno-thriller/hacking plot points.
Still, even in the final scenes that are clichéd beyond clichés, NERVE delivers a message that I feel is incredibly relevant and important in our modern internet-laden times. Anonymity doesn’t necessarily grant someone the freedom to commit actions without consequences. NERVE taps into the idea that morals seemingly go out the window when we sit behind the screen of a computer. In this way, the film is almost like a feature-length BLACK MIRROR episode and there’s something to be commended about that. The cinematography is also slick and although the pop soundtrack occasionally diverts the viewer’s attention away from the plot at hand, the film’s lively execution keeps things visually stimulating.
NERVE may be a mixed bag for me, an adult who has sat through many movies with a similar premise, but I imagine that this film will rock the world of its target demographic. This thriller is fun for two-thirds of the running time and then gets into more serious, albeit very familiar territory. If you’ve seen plenty of techno-thrillers, you’ll likely find yourself bored with the story’s final act and constantly be rolling your eyes. I do appreciate this film’s message that seems frighteningly relevant with the invention of Periscope (a streaming app that came out midway through this film’s production) and hundreds of “challenge” videos that you find every day on YouTube. Overall, NERVE didn’t fully work for me, but I think this teenage-oriented thriller will entertain teenagers in spades.