Combine the tech terror of Black Mirror with the opposites-attract romantic comedy of 10 Things I Hate About You, then add a jolt of pure adrenaline, and you’ve got the heady thriller Nerve.
Based on Jeanne Ryan’s YA novel of the same name, Nerve follows sheepish high school senior Vee (Emma Roberts) through a life-changing 24 hours that will spirit her all over New York, into a rapid-fire romance, and through a bit of hell, courtesy of an anonymous network of “Watchers.” All because she dared to play “Nerve.”
In this escalating game of dares, you are either a Watcher or a Player. The formers vote on the fates of the latter, who consent to dares for the promise of a big cash prize. The rush has made the game addictive on both sides. But, if Players bail or fail a given dare, they’re out, losing all the loot banked along the way. Yet things are even rougher on those who seek help, because “snitches get stitches.”
Vee is the good Staten Island girl. So good that she’s tortured over whether or not to admit to her loving mom (Juliette Lewis) that she dreams of attending an art college all the way across the country in California. But after her aggressive, exhibitionist bestie Sydney (Emily Meade) bullies Vee to take a risk, this meek teen temporarily dodges her home drama by becoming a “Nerve” player.
Her first dare (“Kiss a Stranger”) is mildly embarrassing, but fatefully leads her to pair up with a handsome fellow Player called Ian (Dave Franco at his lip-bitey best). The next thing Vee knows, she’s speeding out of stagnant Staten Island and into the City That Never Sleeps on the back of a motorcycle, her arms wrapped around a dreamy bad boy.
Co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish, Paranormal Activity 3 & 4) deliver a breathless pace and exhilarating atmosphere that pitches audiences into the thrills—and later fear—that Vee and other players experience during these dares. (One scene involving a ladder-walk high above a merciless alleyway is especially harrowing.) Yet it’s Jessica Sharzer’s shrewd script that keeps focus on the emotional rawness of her teen heroes. In a heated argument, Sydney and Vee exchange the kind of personal sucker-punches that only your best friend could land. Conversely, the building attraction between Vee and Ian as they sprint through a posh department store in their undies, exchange secrets in a grungy tattoo parlor, or race down the city streets in a profoundly dangerous dare, are captured with such vibrancy that we share in the elation of their romance.
Though Roberts is more fun as a sneering bad girl (Scream 4, Scream Queens), she brings an easy affability to this borderline bland heroine. And her chemistry with Franco is so hot it scorches. James Dean minus the chip on his shoulder, Franco oozes sex appeal and an alluring mystique. So you can’t blame Vee for disappearing into the night with this studly stranger. Especially after he pulls a Heath Ledger, leaping and bounding through a diner in a public karaoke serenade of seduction full of winsome smiles. (The soundtrack, laced with moody female vocals, also seems a nod to 10 Things’ Letters to Cleo-laced soundtrack.)
Sadly, a sparse screentime dooms much of the supporting stars to one-dimensional bit parts. A swift sob story and a costume of hospital scrubs is about all Lewis is given to shape her harried single-mom. Vee’s crew of high school pals includes the requisite hunky jock, pining nerd, and undefined hangers on. Orange Is The New Black’s Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley bring charm to small roles as a conflicted Watcher and a “hacker queen” respectively. But remarkably, Mead and rapper/actor Machine Gun Kelly manage to bring some surprising and welcomed layers to their white trash adrenaline junkies.
Kelly leans hard into his dirtbag look to play an unhinged Nerve finalist, yet plumbs nuances of regret, panic and humanity, even in his spurts of screentime. Meanwhile, Meade—who Pajibans might remember as Abbi’s successful painter pal in Broad City—is set up to be the loudmouth bitch who gets the “wrong” kind of attention from boys because she gamely takes on dares like mooning the whole school in the midst of a cheerleader routine. Yet, a wounded Sydney watches her bff Vee—via streaming video—not only having an amazing night, but also snatching her chance of a coveted Nerve win. Mead paints pathos into her bad girl’s breakdown that demands audience empathy, instead of allowing for smug judgment and distancing.
But as this thriller barrels into its final act, things go off the rails. The stakes spike sharply, and the any sense of whimsy is lost amid intense stare downs and shady dealings. The storytelling gets sloppy, as does the perspective logic of the cinematography, which frequently punctuates scenes by intercutting the phone-shot footage of both Watchers and Players. So the specifics and tone of this daring genre-bender get a bit wonky. But frankly, Nerve is so fun, I don’t much care that not all of its risks pay off.
Delivering high-stakes action scenes that are riveting and at times too real, along with a love story that’s as sexy and sweet as a great first date, Nerve is an unusual delight that’s just the right amount of deranged.