Facing a tough decision about where she will go to college, and pressure from her friends about her reserved nature, Vee (Emma Roberts) makes a snap decision to join an underground online game/social experiment called NERVE. NERVE players take on increasingly dangerous dares from their "watchers" while racking up money and viewers. After her first dare, Vee is partnered with Ian (Dave Franco), and they begin unraveling the dark secrets behind NERVE.
As new media becomes more accepted as part of the mainstream culture, thinkpieces galore dot the digital landscape about what it all means for traditional media. Some say it will take over traditional media, others see it as a passing fad, but I land somehwere in the middle. New media is here to stay and the changes it has made are titanic. That being said, call me optimistic, but I don't see a world where humans will ever tire of going to the theater and experiencing a movie with a big group of strangers. However, new media will affect traditional media, and vice versa. We see YouTube stars with cable TV shows and popping up in films like 22 JUMP STREET, and it seems as though there are too many streaming services to count. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman of CATFISH fame, it comes as no surprise that NERVE places a healthy dose of conversation starters into its narrative rather than settling for bubble gum teenage shenanigans.
I am wholly NOT the target demographic for NERVE. This is a lithe thriller aimed squarely at high school students with nothing better to do on a Sunday night than to pop over to the multiplex. And I think they will be pleasantly surprised. I don't pretend to know what the teenage experience is like in 2016, but I imagine it's about ten times more difficult than mine given that their every move is documented on social media. The teenage protagonists can feel blown out of proportion, but I think the performances are strong enough to ground them in a relatable place.
Speaking of our teenage protagonists, Emma Roberts and Dave Franco have solid chemistry together and I would not mind if they worked together again in the future. They are attractive and easy to root for which is a nice change of pace since I usually find portrayals of modern teenagers loathsome or used as the butt of some easy joke about millennials. Here, you get a taste for their day to day lives before NERVE takes over and alters them forever. Sure, there isn't a lot of meat on the bones here, but it fleshes out the world enough to understand the characters.
Joost and Schulman keep things running at a clip, and as such, the film doesn't overstay its welcome. However, that does come at the cost of what could have been some chewy social commentary about our online lives. It's a theme the directors are interested in, yet they never commit to a deep dive on the subject. This can be positive or negative depending on my mood. On one hand, I think they do put enough moments in the movie that can lead to great conversations over an ill-advised late night cup of coffee, but it also comes across a little too cautious to be biting satire. The film also falters a bit towards then end. Not enough to ruin the whole thing, but enough to where I got nervous that it might end on a really stupid note. It doesn't, but I think that's because the material itself isn't the most compelling stuff in the universe. It all fits itself and its aesthetic just fine.
When it's all said and done, NERVE isn't good enough to encourage you to seek out, nor is it a cynical cash grab aimed at teenager's pocket books. It exists in this odd middle zone, serving up moments of new media inspired verve and structure, but at the same time trying to tow a traditional line. I don't think we're far off from a film taking new media head on in a full blown send-up but NERVE isn't the chosen one. The tone is too light and the premise is so high concept that it doesn't feel like an indictment of our plugged-in lifestyles rather than a gentle prodding of what media and popularity are for a generation that lives or dies by their follower count.