For a film with a punchy title that instantly conjures the phrase, “You’ve got a lot of nerve, kid!”, Nerve delivers only about 70 percent of the movie I had expected. This Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost-directed film does, however, get a lot right. From the slick and sleek neon aesthetics to the tight scene work and bright cinematography, the viewing experience was both enjoyable and rewarding. And the story, though definitely flawed in a few areas, holds up nicely — in large part due to Dave Franco and Emma Roberts, the charming and easily lovable leads.
At its basics, Nerve is a mostly clever blend of young adult quasi-dystopian fiction and real-world millennial modernism. The film follows our protagonist Venus “Vee” Delmonico (played by a cast-outside-her-usual-type Emma Roberts) on the coming-of-age cusp of life as a college student. I personally really like Roberts as an actress, and while she nails the queen bee alpha female role she’s normally cast as (think Chanel Oberlin from Scream Queens and Madison Montgomery from American Horror Story: Coven), I find that the nuances of her talents shine even brighter in roles like this one, where she’s a more or less “normal” young adult.
With the possibility of attending her dream college — an arts school in California, far removed from her Staten Island stagnancy — hanging in the balance and the fresh grief of losing her brother she has yet to grapple with, Vee is desperate for an escapist distraction. Enter ultra-cool girl Sydney (Emily Meade) — the outgoing (if not outrageous) type-B best friend for whom Vee has an apparent slight envy. Not only is Sydney sitting in the top tier of the popularity hierarchy at their high school, she’s also a top player of the hottest online competition game, Nerve. To Vee, Nerve sounds like the perfect way to get out of her own head.
The game’s split up into Watchers and Players — those who take on the dares and those who dole them out and watch them go down — with the latter completing tasks for cold, hard cash. In attempts to pull herself from the rut she’s in and to prove she’s still got gusto after one particularly embarrassing encounter, Vee signs herself up as a Nerve Player. She finds herself a match in almost bad-boy Ian (Dave Franco), the motorcycle-riding twenty-something she locks lips with during her very first dare — and the Watchers are absolutely smitten with the pair. Like fandom-centric audiences of the present and even recent past, Vee and Ian were quickly elevated to “one true pairing” status. And it’s not hard to understand why. Roberts and Franco sizzle with a unique chemistry that isn’t just electric and organic but believable too. Their on-screen dynamic was so captivating, I’d nearly confused myself into thinking the two were together off-screen as well. Bravo to them.
As the film progressed, so did Nerve’s dares. What began as kissing, serenading and almost grand theft turns to tattoos, blind driving and public nudity. That’s just the name of the game: continue playing despite the odds, or lose all the winnings for which you’ve worked so hard. This all-or-nothing fact that can quickly turn into a trap is made more unsettling in a particular mid-film reveal made by Sydney, who has been entangled in Nerve’s wide web in more ways than one. Following this moment, the film takes a hairpin downward spiral into a darkness that I could feel was intended to be a social commentary on the dangers of social media and toxicity of anonymity in the digital age. Unfortunately, this was the weakest aspect of the film. But it had all the potential in the world to be its greatest! Things that tried to come across as serious just felt silly, and the film lost some of the charm it had earlier. Ironically, in the moments that were supposed to be wrenching and thrilling, most of the exciting tension fizzled away as well. I was pulled out of Nerve a few times in the third act’s twisted-in-comparison vibe, yearning for it to find its footing in a soccer mom cheering on her son, “You can do it!” kind of way. To my dismay, it never did. With some reworking and tightening of the script and its direction, the punch the film wanted to pack could have connected in an explosive way. This part of the story fell super flat, and marred the rest of the run-time to the film’s detriment.
Outside of the story, the visuals are an electric wonderland. Though not everyone’s cup of tea, I found the inclusion of text, scrolling Watchers’ comments and digital pop-ups on-screen to enhance the overall look. Additionally, occasionally swapping to the iPhone vantage point added another layer of coolness and immersion to the film. Schulman and Joost, along with editor Madeleine Gavin, turned the already bustling vibrancy of New York City into a booming cyberpunk playground. I found myself referring to the film’s visuals as a kind of doe-eyed lovechild of Drive and Neon Demon. It’s candy-coated cool, and this is perhaps my very favorite part about Nerve.
Despite the few pitfalls that pock-mark Nerve, there is a fantastic leading couple (I’d watch a Roberts/Franco rom-com in a heartbeat), a gorgeous neo-neon color palette and a zizzing techno-influenced framework for a story that is fresh enough to feel separate from our actual reality but inspired enough to remind us of the bent nature of our modern society’s wishes and whims. It’s a beautifully shot vision whose disappointments don’t entirely destroy its dreaminess.
Nerve is currently playing in American theatres nationwide, with rolling international releases through October 5.