“Nerve” is a thriller that almost lives up to its name.
A jumpy and tech-savvy plunge into the Digital Death of Privacy that today’s youngest webheads/cell-addicts are embracing, it manages to be cautionary but cute, menacing but alluring at the same time.
It has “don’t try this at home” built into it. But whose kids would be able to resist an online game that pays them cash for every “dare” their crowd-sourced “watchers” present them with? That’s the scary thing. Reading about Pokemon Go addicts falling off cliffs makes this a timely nail-biter for the digital age.
Emma Roberts, who replaced the late Dick Clark as “The World’s Oldest Teenager” (she’s 25), is Venus, or “Vee” to her friends. A mild-mannered Staten Island teen/high school photographer who wishes she could go to college in California, she’s stuck with her single mom (Juliette Lewis) and the ghost of her dead older brother.
Not literally. This isn’t that kind of thriller.
Her libidinous pal Sydney (Emily Meade of “That Awkward Moment”) warns her that “life is passing you by.” She needs to get out there, take a chance. Maybe by playing this new open-sourced online game, Nerve.
And all the warnings from her non-threatening boy pal/tech nerd Tommy (Miles Heizer) won’t keep her from playing. It looks like fun, and a way to come out of one’s shell.
The dares include “kiss a stranger” and “eat dog food,” do it live on camera.
“That is so not LIKE you!”
“That’s the POINT!”
The rules are simple. You’re given a challenge, with a cash reward promised. “Fail, or bail.” But don’t tell the authorities. “Snitches get stitches.”
Amy opts in. She’s a “player,” not a “watcher.” Next thing you know, she’s defied the laws of physics and New York mass transit to make a date in Manhattan from Staten Island, kissing a promising stranger reading Virginia Woolf in a diner.
He’s played by Dave Franco. “Ian” is then challenged to serenade the place and put on a show. He sings along to Roy Orbison. Well-played.
Despite Tommy’s misgivings, Amy dashes off into the night, partnered up with Ian for a series of online challenges which reveal just how much the game community knows about them and just how much control that group mind can exercise. The group, “Watchers,” pick the challenges. Members of the group manipulate the dares by, for instance, stealing their clothes when they’re dared to try on impossibly expensive clothes at Bergdorf Goodman. They watch the couple’s every move.
Of course, the challenges take on a sinister tint. Of course, Amy and Ian connect, but can they trust each other?
Of course, the game-fanatic Sydney resents growing online fame Vee is gathering. And of course, Tommy’s tech-savvy with the “dark web” will have a role to play.
The “Cat Fish” veterans behind the camera do only a passable job of setting this up and ratcheting up the suspense. Occasional flashes of wit and style stand out, because much of the film is routine looking and playing. The last third of the script lets them all down.
Roberts is still a winsome presence, and Franco (“Now You See Me”) suggests both disarming, dopey charm and mysterious menace, just right for the part.
The game? It’s a clever conceit, and evocative of the engrossing/all involving Pokemon phone game that took the nation by storm last week, and seems like yesterday’s news already. The chilling part of this, the way the game and its dares could be customized to suit players based on their online profiles — Afraid of heights? Dangle from this ladder/construction crane — is as plausible as any given week’s data-mining revelations can make it.
The stars give “Nerve” its charm, and the challenges, some well-handled (blind-folded motorcycle rides through the city), have an immediacy that pays off.
It doesn’t always work and the story lets us off the hook too easily. But “Nerve” is a smart and reasonably taut thriller aimed at a generation that may be hard to convince to put stop sharing with strangers, and to put down its phones long enough to watch.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for thematic material involving dangerous and risky behavior, some sexual content, language, drug content, drinking and nudity-all involving teens
Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Juliette Lewis, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer
Credits: Directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, script by Jessica Sharzer based on the Jeanne Ryan novel. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:36