It would be a stretch to call “Nerve” a good film. The YA adaptation, the latest film from directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (“Catfish,” “Paranormal Activity 3” and “4”) and based on Jeanne Ryan’s novel of the same name, is formulaic, lumpy and a little too implausible in its approach. But in the age of Periscope, Tinder and “Pokémon Go,” there’s nevertheless something about this high-concept social commentary, centered around a mobile game where inhibition-free minors participate in a city-wide game of Truth or Dare (minus the truth), that’s accessible, appealing and quite telling. Sure, it’s silly, cheesy and, more often than not, downright ridiculous, but the MTV-friendly romp is a lean, gleefully goofy and sometimes unabashedly hokey piece of loose-moraled escapism, if one that might end up hitting closer than home than some PG-13 audiences might like.
High school senior Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts) is a bright-but-sensitive young photographer who often sits in the bleachers while her nearly-fearless BFF, Sydney (Emily Meade), often indulges her wild side. Although Vee has a full-ride scholarship to CalArts and a promising future ahead of her, she lives in crippling debt with her single mother Nancy (Juliette Lewis), who is still reeling from the premature death of her oldest son. But money worries might be over with the arrival of a new craze stealing the attention of adolescents all across New York City: Nerve.
The hot new reality game gives daring youngsters the chance to become either a Watcher or a Player, performing insane, disgusting and occasionally death-defying stunts around their neighborhood. But despite Sydney’s insistence, Vee is reluctant to become anything more than a Watcher, like she’s always been. When she discovers the financial opportunities made available by the challenges, however, Vee takes a walk on the wild side and swipes right, against the advice of her best friend, Tommy (Miles Heizer). Her first dare is to kiss a complete stranger for five seconds, and that’s how she makes the acquaintance of a brave, handsome and outgoing young Ian (Dave Franco), whom she quickly endears herself to.
The Watchers, instantly taken by their cutesy relationship together, request Ian take Vee into the city. From there, the two near-strangers perform a variety of risky stunts, from getting tattoos, to running out of high-end clothing stores in their underwear, to driving a motorcycle down a busy street at 60 miles an hour, blindfolded. All the while, Vee becomes more confident and self-assured, and she becomes more drawn to Ian’s charm. But the deeper she goes down the rabbit hole, the more Vee realizes that Ian might not be who he suggests, and that the game itself might be more dark and disturbed than it initially seemed. When the online game hits a little too close to reality, however, Vee will need Ian’s help if she wants to make it out alive.
Much like last year’s “Unfriended,” “Nerve” takes an admittedly absurd gadget-centric premise and turns it into a socially-attuned modern farce, without becoming too winking or overbearing with its observations and critiques. But more than anything else, it’s a surprising and absorbingly gripping piece of popcorn entertainment, lead by a capable cast, a pair of culturally in-sync directors and an agreeably self-aware screenplay by Jessica Sharzer. Although it’s not likely to stay relevant beyond, say, five or so years (if that), it’s distinctly present, well aware of where we are in today’s online society, yet not condescending or mean-spirited in its attitude or exegesis. It’s one of those rare teen-centric films that feels in harmony with today’s collective young mindset, resulting in dialogue and performances that feel much more natural than they usually do in these kind of films. That’s key to why “Nerve” works, typically in spite of its ludicrous story.
The plot takes a fairly Red Pill vs. Blue Pill scenario and make it more accessible to the phone-glued world of tweens today, which is fitting, since it’s a big pill to swallow in order to believe any of this is remotely possible, especially towards the final act. To the credit of Joost and Schulman, though, the directors play with the far-out premise with conviction, resulting in a number of genuinely exciting set pieces and enjoyable set-ups that also, thankfully, never forget the characters at the center. Franco and Roberts aren’t necessarily a match made in cyber heaven, but they’re likably down-key chemistry together is what gives “Nerve” its ultimate spark, infesting a wild-and-out premise with enough believability to make it all sing.
And though there’s no real sour patch in the ensemble — even Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker holds his own well enough in a villainous role — the real standout is Meade, who already proved herself earlier this year in Max Landis’ otherwise-unfortunate “Me Him Her.” She brings a realness to her fairly-flat supporting character and, once again, signifies herself as an authentic, fresh-faced talent. I can’t wait to see more of her in the future, even though her performance here is already fairly revealing (as far as PG-13 movies go, at least). And Lewis work here, even in a mostly underdeveloped character, is far more redeeming than anything she did in “Jem and the Holograms,” a film that does everything wrong that “Nerve” (mostly) does right.
As inviting as it is immersive and convivial, “Nerve” is bumpy, sloppy and rather unsophisticated, but it’s also ultimately sociable, warm, endearing and, most of all, pretty fun. In a time when people are more concerned with their online profile than their real personalities, it’s nice to see a film tackle both sides of that divide while remaining fairly lifelike in its execution — no matter how looney the events inside the film might be. Those in the right demographic will almost certainly find a lot to love, and while it might not strike a collective nerve, it rings with enough truth, that the film should find more than a few respectable Watchers. [B-]