NERVE is a triumph of style. It is a slight story that fails on every level but two, and those are the ones that are the most important. Do we care about what happens to our unlikely heroine? Do the increasingly dangerous dares that make up that slight story keep us on the edge of our collective seat? Yes and yes. Based on the novel of the same name by Jeanne Ryan, it’s also smart enough to firmly place this jaunt to the edge of reason in neon-lit noir that is not quite in our universe, thereby clearing the way for the more allegorical aspects of the tale. That would be the evils of reality television, and the reality of cyber-paranoia, with a dash of parental anxiety about what their kids get up to when they’re out of sight, and a tidy deconstructions of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, thrown in just for good measure.
The title is an eponymous online game, played secret from the authorities and parents, which consists of anonymous players and watchers, both of the rabid fan variety. The watchers dare the players to do things for cash and, eventually, the title of top player. The players capture their dares on video, cash is deposited, and the feeling of having gained the respect of perfect strangers is enjoyed. Our heroine, the self-effacing high school senior Vee (Emma Roberts) is introduced to the game by her best friend Syd (Emily Meade), an avid player who doesn’t need the money, but does enjoy the notoriety and the chance to be the big winner by engaging in surprising modifications to her cheerleader costume and grossing out strangers with ersatz noises of bodily functions. Vee is aghast, but when Syd privately dares her to start a conversation with the guy on whom she has been crushing, and when that dare fizzles badly, Vee signs up for regulation play, and is soon caught up in the adrenaline rush, not to mention cash rewards, that come with kissing strangers and taking impromptu trips to Manhattan from Staten Island on the back of a motorcycle. That the stranger is Dave Franco, a cute and slightly nebbish young man with a disarming air of sincerity, is even more incentive.
Taking place over the course of one night, the stakes rise precipitously as Vee gains online followers, to Syd’s chagrin, and the promised cash soars into the five digit range. The dark, after all, is better for that candy-colored neon to seep into our visual cortex, and for the graphics to slickly meld reality with the cyberworld’s POV. It almost offsets the stock characters that populate the film and the predictable story line. Vee has an adoring puppy dog of a sidekick (Miles Heizer) who worships her in silence. Syd is the factory-issue shallow bad-girl who just wants to be loved. Even Juliette Lewis as Vee’s mom can’t make much of a character whose only job is to ask Vee’s friends where she is.
On the other hand, Roberts is terrific. The shy girl with dreams that she dare not dream slowly realizes that not only can she walk on the wild side if forced to do so, she can, and does, also enjoy the power and the pleasure of being in control. She makes this a dawning realization rather than a klunky epiphany, moving slowly from introvert going head-down through life into as someone who struts with a gleam in her eye, chin cocked impudently forward. She’s the reason why it matters when things go wrong for Vee as she goes from confident to reckless as teenagers will. She’s also, the reason we can give a pass to the stilted situations that crop up from time to time.
As is the direction by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, that take the dares involving high places, fast motorcycles, condescending sales clerks, and exiting a public place with less clothing than that which one entered and makes them almost unbearably tense. Perfect editing, inspired camera angles, and a sure sense of what will creep us out coalesce into sequences that are the pure adrenaline the players themselves crave.
NERVE is a diverting flick. One admires its intermittent artistry, and the way it lets the nerdiest of code-writer redefine cool. One admires the way Roberts wears a green-sequined mini-dress with such commendable nonchalance. And one hopes that the next film from Joost and Schulman is everything this flick is and more.