Directors: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco
Watch Nerve online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Cyberthriller. A word almost as tired as the young adult dystopian film genre. A combination of the two, then, should be derivative and dull, but Nerve is a thrilling jolt to your adrenal gland; the film may be guilty of the former, but is never guilty of the latter.
The film stars Emma Roberts as Venus Delmonico – or “Vee” – a girl who lives in the shadow of her friend, Sydney (Emily Meade). Sydney’s everything Emma is not. She’s impulsive, confident and popular, the kind of girl who signs up to the online game Nerve, which involves Players taking on dares for money, while their antics are viewed live via their phone cameras by other users (Watchers). So when Vee wants to prove there’s more to her than meets the eye, she decides to join in as well, a move that throws her into the competitive world of the underground tournament.
It’s the kind of premise that could either sound stupid or novel, depending on your tolerance for techo-nonsense, but Nerve manages to be novel enough to stop it seeming stupid; the movie moves at such a pace, and with such conviction in its idea, that you don’t get to think about what’s going on until the end. It’s no coincidence that’s this is where the script also runs out of steam, wrapping things up in an all-too-convenient finale – but what a ride it is to get there.
Vee’s first challenges bring her into contact with Ian (Franco), another player who’s firmly in it to win it. When they prove a popular combination with viewers, their dares begin requiring them to work together, and you can’t blame their fans; Roberts and Franco both have charisma to spare, with Roberts proving her likeable lead credentials with Scream Queens, Scream 4 and Palo Alto, and Franco flaunting his charm in Joe Swanberg’s Netflix series, Easy. They click together nicely, and their chemistry helps you to go along with them both, as the pranks get increasingly perilous.
Those raising stakes, and their growing relationship, are neatly matched, and Jessica Sharzer’s script, based on the novel by Jeanne Ryan, knows it. Borrowing a leaf from Black Mirror, she makes sure the emotional and the technological are intertwined; the climax of the film, tellingly, involves a showdown between Sydney and Vee, with interjections from Vee’s friend, Tommy (Miles Heizer), who not-so-secretly carries a torch for her. The computer geekery is just as well-observed; in an age where Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are placing a growing emphasis on live-streaming, the idea of broadcasting dares live from your phone is all too plausible.
That, it would seem, is why Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are in the directing chair; after the hit that was Catfish, they’re filmmakers who are immediately associated with the digital age. But their real skill is their style, which melds handheld cameras and mobile phones with a frantic speed that leaves the frame fluidly racing through a world of neon lights and dark nightscapes, constantly diving in and out of people’s screens. That effortless energy keeps your eyeballs firmly on the screen, capturing the surge of adrenaline that powers Vee right up until the finish. Supporting characters, such as Vee’s mum, may be broadly sketched and the message may be a tad familiar, but Nerve is an enjoyable, dynamic cyberthriller that comes across as a teen-friendly spin-off from Charlie Brooker’s anthology series. If this were part of Black Mirror, you can imagine it getting a lot more praise. Either way, all those other young adult dystopian films should sit up and pay attention. Nerve’s heart may be worn a little too openly on its sleeve, but this is a techno-tale with a beating pulse.
Nerve is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
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