NERVE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Directors: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Stars: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Juliette Lewis, Machine Gun Kelly, Brian Marc, Marc John Jeffries.
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Nerve is a popular on-line social media game in which competitors are set challenges, a bit like an internet version of Fear Factor. The more dangerous the challenge the more money a person can make, but if you fail to complete the challenge you get nothing. All of the challenges have to be filmed using the competitor’s mobile phones. There are two categories of people involved in Nerve – there are the players, those who actively participate and undertake the challenges, and there are the watchers, those who follow their favourite players and also suggest dares and egg on the players through social media. Watching costs $20 per month.
Vee Delmonico (played by Emma Roberts) is a studious high school student who is about to head off to college. She wants to leave her dull life in Staten Island behind and head off to California to study at CalArts, where she has earned a scholarship. But she is reluctant to tell her mother Nancy (Juliette Lewis) of her decision. Vee is something of a quiet girl who has never taken a risk in her life.
That changes when her reckless best friend Sydney (Emily Meade, from the recent Money Monster, etc), one of the game’s best players, urges Vee to take a risk. Before long Vee has signed up as a player. With her friend Tommy (Miles Heizer, from tv series Parenthood, etc) she heads off to New York City for her first dare. There she is directed to kiss a stranger. In a diner she spies a handsome young man named Ian (Dave Franco, from Bad Neighbours, etc), who is reading a copy of Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse, which just happens to be Vee’s favourite novel. A connection develops between the pair and they find themselves sent off on a couple of challenges.
At first they are rather harmless, like trying on clothes in an upmarket department store, but the challenges take on a more sinister and dangerous nature as the night progresses. And Vee finds herself a popular player, which sets up an intense rivalry with Sydney. And another hitch is the volatile and unpredictable presence of Ty (played by Cleveland rapper Machine Gun Kelly) who seems determined to win at all costs.
Nerve is based on the best selling 2012 YA novel written by Jeanne Ryan. The novel has been adapted by screenwriter Jessica Sharzer, who has worked on tv series like American Horror Story, and she brings an edgy quality to the material. The directors are Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who first came to audience’s attention with the documentary Catfish, which looked at the anonymous power of the internet and identity theft. The pair also directed the last two instalments in the Paranormal Activity franchise, and they again use mixed media to shape this film.
The pair use the language of social media to shape this unconventional thriller. They use a combination of GoPro cameras and mobile phone footage, multiple pov angles, and even, like the recent Unfriended, Skype to set up certain scenes. They maintain a fast pace throughout, and some scenes add to the tension. Cinematographer Michael Simonds gives the film a crisp, glossy and flash visual surface.
For much of the duration Nerve is quite an intense and engaging thriller, and it draws us into this world, but it is let down by the implausible and unnecessarily contrived ending, which completely goes off the rails. There are gaps in the logic here, and the ending raises many unanswered questions. Also we are left to wonder who is behind the game in the first place. The film raises a moral quandary also as it explores just how far some people are prepared to go to win a competition with high stakes.
Performances are nothing special. Although they are a good looking and handsome couple, there is little chemistry between Roberts and Franco. Roberts makes for a strong  heroine here but she also manages to inject Vee with a hint of vulnerability. Franco is less convincing; his Ian is more enigmatic and even Vee is unsure how far she can trust him at times. Meade makes Sydney a thoroughly selfish and unlikeable character.
This digital-era variation on David Fincher’s 1997 thriller The Game is aimed squarely at that demographic who live their lives largely via social media. It is a cautionary tale about peer pressure, the way in which adolescents interact in the digital age, the pursuit of on-line fame, the dark corners of the internet with its internet trolls and vicious keyboard warriors. But it is also very timely and realistic, especially given the popularity of Pokemon Go and the way in which people are addicted to tracking down fictional anime figures. But the hunt for these characters has, in some case, turned downright deadly.
Nonetheless, if the demographic audience can tear themselves away from Pokemon Go for a couple of hours they may well turn this thriller into a box office hit!

★★★

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