It’s happened. I’ve reached that age where teenagers and young adults fascinate and scare me, and it all came together while watching Nerve. In a few short weeks, I will be 32 years-old, and I must to come to terms with the fact that outside of NPR, I’m no longer the target audience for new media. The stars are all younger than me, the music confuses me, and I’m becoming more and more inclined to say things like “they don’t make things like they used to” or “baaaaaaaaaah, kids these days don’t know how good they got it!”
That said, Nerve was pretty cool.
Based on a young adult novel because of course, Nerve is a real-time adventure based around a social media platform in which users can sign up to be either a “watcher” or a “player.” Watchers pay cash to watch players complete dangerous challenges for cash. The watchers pick the challenges while the players broadcast their actions via cell phone camera. The only way to win is to be the last player standing, but if you fail, bail, or forget to record the challenge, you’re out of the game for good. Oh, and snitches get stitches – if you report any of the action to the cops, you pay the price. It’s basically The Game meets Pokemon GO.
Vee (Emma Roberts) is a reserved high school senior who, in a fit of wanting to bust out of her shell, decides to sign up for Nerve as a player. This is not normal behavior for her, says the script, and it puts her into cahoots with a fellow player, Ian (Dave Franco, who will always be Mike Pancake* to me). Much to the chagrin of her long-time Nerve-player friend Sydney (Emily Meade aka Bobo Emma Stone), Vee becomes the top trending Nerve player, which causes drama typical of a young adult thriller. Add to that the idea that there might be larger forces pulling the strings behind it all, and you’ve got yourself a half-decent way to kill 90 minutes.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish, Paranormal Activity 3 and 4) have found a nice niche in which to really blossom as filmmakers. If you need to add panache to a sorta-found-footage thriller, they may be the best in the biz. Nerve has a strong visual style in which we see the action through standard cinematic presentation as well as from a variety of “watcher” cameras. Sometimes we appear to be looking up at the characters from the inside of their mobile devices, other times through that of a watcher-piloted drone cam. The screen is awash with digital additions, including a device in which we see the skyline of New York punctuated with the usernames and locations of each Nerve player.
In fact, the most engaging aspect of Nerve is the way that the Big Apple is shot. Joost and Schulman have created a slick, neon-lit version of the city that, despite the visual bells and whistles, still feels like New York (albeit with considerably less traffic). Coupled with an exceptional soundtrack, the many script misgivings are generally easy to forgive in exchange for the cinematic energy on display.
The direction is so strong, that I’m beginning to really doubt the veracity of Catfish. I know it was partially fake, but I wonder if it wasn’t just skillfully created fiction. I digress.
Yes, the third act crumbles. Yes, Emma Roberts’ voice is a fingernails-on-chalkboard level of irritating. Yes, there are a TON of potentially interesting plot-threads left dangling, but as mindless entertainment for teens goes, this is one of the better entries.
I did find it weird that Mike Pancake is actually kinda buff. This really checked my reality, and I don’t like it. Mike Pancake is supposed to comically weak, and always at a disadvantage due to his charming stupidity. Alas, he is only Mike Pancake to me, and to a world of children for whom most of modern entertainment is designed, Mike Pancake is celebrity stud Dave Franco, and I must learn to accept this.
*Mike Pancake is a character played by Dave Franco in Unfinished Business. It was a terrible movie, but the Mike Pancake gag became a bit of an obsession for me. You will have to deal with this, dear reader.
Nerve opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.