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Nerve triple-dog-dares you to like it. It’s helmed by Catfish bounce-backers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. It stars the lesser Franco (Dave). And it’s a teen movie about a ridiculous concept whose leading lady is Emma Roberts. Though Roberts may have hit the heights on television series such as Scream Queens and American Horror Story, her box-office record isn’t nearly as stellar.
Yet Nerve is mindlessly compelling, akin to a fictional, feature-length version of Fear Factor, except not as gross and with a realistic chance of its characters dying. Adapted by Jessica Sharzer from a young adult novel, the film centers on an online game of dare called Nerve in which participants either pay to watch or play to win cash. Vee (Roberts) is an inhibited Staten Island high school senior who’s too afraid to talk to her mother (Juliette Lewis, totally unfit to play a soccer mom) about her acceptance to a California college. Her best friend Sydney (Emily Meade) is a popular player who believes Vee will never be willing to wander out of her comfort zone. Sydney challenges her to sign up for Nerve, but with a post-script burn: “You’re a watcher.”
After Sydney humiliates Vee by telling a boy she’s crushing on that she likes him, Vee decides to join the game, with the intention of completing only one dare. She types in her info—and gives her fingerprint (!)—and receives her first challenge: to kiss a stranger at a diner for $100. Vee drags along torch-carrying friend Tommy (Miles Heizer) to bolster her, well, nerve, and chooses good-looking Ian (Franco) because he also happens to be reading her favorite book. She does the deed. But then Ian leaps up, goes to the jukebox, and entertains the other diners with a little song and dance. He’s on Nerve, too. And the watchers—who text the game about what they want to see—like Ian and Vee together, so they’re paired for their subsequent dares.
If Nerve can teach you anything, it’s to read the terms and conditions—and not to offer your fingerprint to anonymous software. (Even though, in this particular case, there seem to be only three transparent conditions, including “Snitches get stitches.”) The dares go from innocuous to dangerous, with players collecting watchers. It eventually gets very Hunger Games, and though Roberts and Franco have a cute chemistry, you’ll have to endure frequent variations of the exchange, “No, this is crazy!” “But we have to!” The challenges evoke the proper tension and ensuing rush, with the directors often shooting from above the pair dashing throughout New York City on Ian’s motorcycle, with carefree-evincing songs such as Børns’ buoyant “Electric Love” accompanying their playtime. And in addition to the major characters, Orange Is the New Black fans who pay attention will find a couple of series faves.
It’s probably needless to say that the film has some holes as well as some plot points that are difficult to believe, such as the BFFs suddenly treating each other like frenemies. The game isn’t exactly realistic, either, with an elaborate explanation about why no one can be prosecuted for organizing the game or for other legal fallouts. (Un–Fear Factor–like, these daredevils aren’t equipped with harnesses.) There’s silly dialogue and an absurd finale that takes place in a darkened arena, with thousands of masked watchers cheering on the mayhem.
Yet there’s enough humor to elevate the script above total idiocy. And as with Schulman and Joost’s fake documentary, you’ll always be wondering what’s going to happen next, even if you’re a little embarrassed for doing so. At the end of the film, a bad-guy-turned-good asks his adversary, “We cool?” Yep, we cool.
Nerve is now playing at theaters everywhere.