In Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Nerve, there’s a shot where daredevil stranger Ian (Dave Franco) and nervous schoolgirl Vee (Emma Roberts) speed across the bridge from her home in Staten Island to Manhattan. It’s a typical adventure film glamour shot with one difference: 2,000 feet above their heads, taller than any skyscraper in the city, float their online handles, @Vee_99 and @_IAN_. They’ve joined an online game called Nerve — “like truth or dare without truth,” describes Vee’s best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade) — and we’re watching the participants watch them try to win.
Nerve is based on Jeanne Ryan’s 2012 novel of the same name, which predates the Periscope-look of the game-within-a-film by three years. Here’s how it works: Watchers pay Players to attempt and then stream the chatroom’s challenges. Flash the school, kiss a rando, fart in public, cliff-dive, make your dog lick peanut butter off your balls. The riskier the dare, the bigger the reward. The higher the stakes, the more Watchers choose your channel, until the two most popular contestants go head-to-head. What’s the grand prize? No one asks. Cash, maybe. But Sydney’s chancing death for pixelated hearts, an intangibility we’ve been trained to treasure.
When Sydney sobs while tightrope-walking between two tall buildings on a ladder, I thought my heart would stop. (Meade, who popped in this spring’s Money Monster and Me Him Her, is this year’s best discovery — she’s a wicked little bunny.) Later, their craziest rival, Ty (Colson Baker, a.k.a. Machine Gun Kelly, a fascinating presence who looks like he crawled out of the Soviet dark web) agrees to lie down on the subway tracks. Yet the directors are braving the most danger: No one, like, ever, ever — no one ever — has made a movie about the web that wasn’t instantly lame. A script takes years to become a film, long enough that its fresh technology smells like old sushi. Just picture the goofy cyberpunk fonts in Angelina Jolie’s Hackers, or that time telecommuting shut-in Sandra Bullock ordered delivery from pizza.net. #NeverForget.
Directors Joost and Schulman are logical hires. They built their career exposing internet liars with the quasi-doc Catfish and its TV spin-off. [Note: Catfish and MTV News are both owned by Viacom.] They’re also both 34, which makes them former dial-up connection–using geezers who must prove they still connect with the kidz. Do you even Snapchat Stories, bros?
Nerve scribbles text messages and pop-up windows and those dopey handles across the screen like an anxiously hip hanger-on. It’s exhausting. The story is so good, the directors can down a cocktail emoji and chill. (And its best in-joke is when Vee scrolls past a Huffington Post article entitled, “Is James Franco Too Smart?”)
Though Roberts is miscast as a wallflower — seriously, the film expects us to believe a jock in her class would dismiss the mannequin-perfect beauty as “not my type” — Nerve taps into the rush of realizing strangers think you’re cool. After an annoying string of scenes that fail to convince that Vee is a dork, she finally climbs on Ian’s bike and things start to speed up so fast we cruise over the script’s two dozen plot holes. Nothing quite makes sense, but the reactions feel real, from the anonymous chatters who insult Vee as “skinny AF” to Sydney’s jealousy that her sidekick is suddenly more popular than her.
We know what Vee doesn’t quite comprehend: The game’s algorithm has scanned her life. It knows she loves Wu-Tang and Virginia Woolf, and it knows her broke single mom’s (Juliette Lewis) bank accounts. Vee introduces herself to Ian because he’s holding Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. She thinks he’s literary. We fear the worst. But just by enjoying the sight of Roberts and Franco scampering through a mall in their underwear, we’re Watchers, too. At its most lizard-brain level, movie-going is voyeurism: an excuse to gawk at gorgeous people obeying commands.
“If kids were dying, the game would be shut off,” Vee insists. By who? Movies pretend that one bad hacker controls our lives. Nerve knows we’re all playing the game. We’re all guilty of subtweets, snide comments, invasions of privacy, and internet vanity. Let he who’s never obsessed over likes post the first pure selfie. We’ve all won while losing our true selves to a shared obsession. As the movie gets darker, a compliment from one of Vee’s friends kept retweeting in my brain. “You guys are so famous right now!” she chirps. Right now. How happy will they be tomorrow?