If you’ve ever wondered what Emma Roberts and Dave Franco could possibly have in common with modernist literature, there is now a small nod in your general direction. For some reason, the film the actors star in, Nerve, makes a big deal out of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, if only to attempt to gain cool points with nerds the way Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight did with Bronte fans. Nerve has little to do with the interior life of the characters that populate To The Lighthouse and is more concerned with warning teens against the dangers of peer pressure and condemning the perception of anonymity on the internet. It’s like a D.A.R.E. program in film form, except it’s not about drugs so much as it is about the dangers of literal dares.
Emma Roberts’ character “Vee,” short for Venus, is a cautious high school student in Staten Island who has a love of photography. Nerve reveals one thing immediately: This is a world where the yearbook is still A Thing, but new technology is still king for the teens and the film opens with a lot of close-ups of Vee’s computer screen. Many of the initial scenes are filmed in this same style of close-up, similar to the framing of a camera phone, complete with handheld camerawork.
Vee has friends who are considerably less shy than she. Sydney (Emily Meade) introduces the audience to the game Nerve, a computer and cell phone based dare app that connects “players” to “watchers” Periscope and Twitch style. The watchers are simultaneously viewing the live video feed from the player’s cell phone and controlling what dares the players will have to complete in exchange for money. The money is no joke: hundreds of dollars are up for grabs if the player has the nerve to complete the task. If they do not, they either have “bailed” or “failed” and the consequences… well, they’re pretty horrible, but players don’t get to find out what they are until it happens to them.
So, how does this money make its way to the players? It turns out that once the player agrees to play the app connects through your fingerprint to both your social media accounts and additionally gains access to your bank account to both add and subtract funds.
If it sounds sketchy, it’s because it is, but do these teens care? Of course they don’t. Just the same way serving sizes are more of a challenge than a real portion, just the same way that no one reads the terms and conditions, and just the same way we routinely use software and hardware that remembers our personal data, the kids in this film threw caution to the wind. After a particularly #rude humiliation, Vee decides to prove that she too can be #reckless, and signs up for Nerve.
Enter Dave Franco as Ian, the secretly bland and not-at-all-bad-boy that Vee sees in a diner and is dared to kiss for five seconds. She chooses him because he is reading a copy of her favorite novel, To The Lighthouse, and not because he looks kind of like a movie star. As much as I admire Woolf’s writing, I would have assumed the book was less for pleasure and more for class. Once Vee realizes Ian is also playing Nerve, the two of them are then dared to go off to Manhattan together. So off they go, on his motorcycle, into the night.
Their first stop is Bergdorf Goodman, as one does. The trailer for the film makes much of this scene, so I won’t rehash it, but I must say that it is less cool seeing well-known celebrities who are related to wealthier celebrities trying on dresses and suits worth thousands of dollars. Shockingly, the dares take over their good time, and things escalate from the innocent to potentially law-breaking to possibly fatal quickly.
The players can bail at any time, but Vee desperately wants to be edgy and stick it to her perceived betrayer, Sydney. Suffice to say, this is not what I would consider a feminist flick. That’s not to say that it’s necessarily bad, rather, that the lead does not have a healthy relationship with her supposed best friend is both true to real teen friendships and unfortunate in a film ripe with paranoia. Vee’s mother (Juliette Lewis) is equally removed from her life, though the strain of their relationship comes from mourning more than raw emotion.
Vee has a better relationship with her buddy Tommy, who spends much of the film being ignored and left behind, until his computer-hacker skills are useful. Through him the audience gains understanding of the mechanics of the Nerve game and breaks down the computer-speak to understandable terms like “dark web” and “bot net.” Nerve is half Mr. Robot, quarter-stylized Refn or Mann-esque visuals, and quarter-young adult fiction (Nerve is an adaptation of a 2012 YA novel by the same name).
Nerve isn’t bad throughout its middle and even manages to increase both the risks the characters undertake and build a supportive subplot. The ending is less than stellar, and with better characterization and stronger motives, Vee could have been the sort of strong heroine that she should be. Only time will tell if Nerve sticks with its core audience. My guess is that it won’t.