Movie Review: Nerve

Techno thriller sends people on risky dares, but doesn't fulfill its own basic challenges

Nerve (Nerve: Hra o život)
Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
With Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Juliette Lewis

Some people spend more time online than in real life. The recent Pokemon Go craze shows that the two concepts can be combined. Nerve, a techno-thriller set in New York City, takes the idea a step further and creates an underground online game where some people earn money by completing dares and broadcasting them, and others pay to watch. The dares are created by the watchers, who remain anonymous.

Anyone who has spent anytime on the internet knows that once people can hide behind screen names they are apt to behave rather badly. And mobs tend display what can only be called a mob mentality. So it is no surprise the dares get out of hand. All the same, the film belabors this idea for an hour and a half. It is a sort of a way to have your virtual cake and virtually eat it to. The film exists not to make a point about cyber bullying and trolling, but to show the dares the people have to do. And then in the end pretend like it had a deep message for the audience.

Setting aside the annoying hypocrisy, the film does have some good scenes and decent enough acting. Vee (played by Emma Roberts) is shy girl in a high school on Staten Island. Her BFF at school Sydney (Emily Meade) plays the game and asks her to pay to watch, as she hopes to heve enough viewers to make it into some high-stakes final round. After some school-girl drama, Vee storms off and join the game as a player. Before anyone can say #OMG, she is becomes paired up with Ian (Dave Franco) and becomes one of the most-watched contestants. The dares turn from charming to illegal to insane fairly rapidly. And Vee's friends start to suspect all is not what it seems with Ian.

The film breaks into multiple plotlines, with Vee risking her life on dares, and her friends trying to come to her rescue. Sydney, though, is miffed that Vee has become more popular and pushed her out of contention for the top prize. The rules are pretty vague about how you get to keep the money, and hopefully made more sense in the novel.

The increasingly dangerous stunts intercut with the efforts of Vee's friends to try to get her out of the game make for a fast paced plot, but it is not fast enough to cover up the gaping plot holes.

The game has been around for some time and there are hints of it going wrong in the past, just like Pokemon Go led people into harm's way. But for some reason it hasn't been shut down. There is some talk in the film that it can't be shut down because it isn't on one server, and no specific person is in charge of it. At other times, there is a dark force behind the game that can't be explained by mere crowd dynamics. There are also numerous things going on that can't be guided solely by the code in the game, even if it is open source. The game, at best, needs a bit more explanation.

Emma Roberts and Dave Franco make a pleasant enough screen couple, and they would have worked well together in a romantic thriller without all the confusing cybergame trappings. The friends were a bit less impressive, with acting reminiscent of teen sex comedies.

Juliette Lewis gives a rather mature performance as Vee's possessive mother. She can be a little over the top sometimes but was quite on target in a small role.

The direction by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman is all over the map, never settling on a coherent tone for any length of time. It shifts from teen comedy to romance to horror, creating a rather disorienting effect. There is a large fantasy element in the story, especially by the end, but the filmmakers don't create the proper atmosphere for the fantasy to work. Films set in New York like The Warriors from 1979 or Leon: The Professional from 1995 turn the city into an alternate reality where odd happenings make sense. The filmmakers here don't create such a world. As such, the film never rises to a sufficient level of believability to justify the audience spending their time and money just to get a preachy lesson about the lack of humanity of the cyber mob.

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