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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
I’ve written many times in the past how I enjoy the little genre films that often get thrown into the big summer season and generate little fanfare. I absolutely loved A Perfect Getaway, one of 2009’s best films. I similarly loved the second and third sequel films in The Purge franchise (ok, those were high profile but did anyone really expect that franchise to break out?). I thought last years The Gift was super interesting and incredibly adult – something rare in today’s Hollywood. Last Julys Nerve, which was released with relatively little fanfare, is similarly another great genre film, though this time targeted at the teenaged crowd. And while I don’t fall into the teen demographic whatsoever, I still found Nerve to be incredibly engaging, smart when it needed to be, and overall a really solid genre film.
Emma Roberts (who, much like Blake Lively in The Shallows is great here) stars as Vee, a high school senior living in Staten Island who has dreams of attending art school in California. Living with her single mom (Juliette Lewis!), an overworked nurse struggling to get past the death of her son, Vee is somewhat sheltered and never seems to take risks in her life. When her safe ways result in rejection from the class jock, Vee takes it upon herself to change her image. How does she do this? By participating in Nerve, a viral online game popular with millennials. The game is controversial after being linked with a teen’s death in Seattle, but millions of people participate as “Watchers” rather than “Players.” They pay a fee to watch people live out a real-world version of Truth or Dare, with the dares typically being dangerous and/or life threatening.
It is while participating in Nerve that Vee meets Ian (Dave Franco, who at this point is a better and more interesting actor than his older brother), a loner with a motorcycle who seems just dangerous enough to be interesting. The two are paired up together by Nerve users, and thus must participate together throughout a dare-filled night in New York City. This makes up the bulk of the film and is the most interesting part of the movie. Vee’s friends round out the cast, but I can’t be bothered to look up any of their names because they’re not as developed as the main characters. There’s also a somewhat villainous role played by a guy who goes by the moniker of Machine Gun Kelly, so kudos to him for picking out a totally righteous stage-name.
Nerve was shot on a budget of 20 million and directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the two responsible for Catfish, Catfish: The Series, and two of the later Paranormal Activity films. These guys have their fingers on the button of social media and cheap filmmaking. As such, Nerve looks like a 50 million dollar production and feels realistic when it needs to despite having a ridiculously presented premise. There are moments where the film dives headfirst into liquid cheese, but it’s presented stylishly and in an interesting manner. Nerve is kind of like Saw meets Hackers meets Now You See Me in that respect. It keeps you intrigued, guessing, and interested while also being just corny enough to work.
Some parts of Nerve work better than others. The setup of the film is just fine – Vee gets into an argument with her best friend. This is something we can all relate to after all. The best parts of the movie start with the introduction of Franco and go all the way until Franco and Roberts attend a party together in NYC. The film had previously been super quickly paced, jumping from dare to dare with tight editing. The NYC party scenes slow the film down considerably unfortunately. In fairness, the film needs to slow down in order to help establish character growth and further the plot. It’s just that the side characters are rather uninteresting and the plot is secondary to the intriguing dares. Fortunately things ramp up again for a finale that works despite ramping the melodrama up to 11 and straining believability considerably (this is the part most akin to 1995’s Hackers, one of my favorite bad films).
This summer has been almost a complete slog, filled with crap after crap. It’s nice that studios will still take a chance on a film like this. It’s high concept and high energy – super entertaining and fun. Not every film in the marketplace needs to cost 250 million dollars. I would argue that more films should be made like Nerve. It’s a low-budget thriller film that actually has some important things to say about technology and social media, even if the things it says are clunky at times. Like last year’s The Gift, Nerve is a thriller film that is better than it has any right to be. I recommend checking it out for those sick of the two and a half special effects marathons we get so much of these days.