There are a lot of bad movies aimed at teenage audiences, and the one sin nearly every one of them commits is condescension. Sometimes, it’s the well-intentioned pandering of a forty-year-old screenwriter trying to get hip to the jive lingo, writing for a multi-ethnic-and-suspiciously-one-percenty group of kids who are trying to get all lit and turnt-up IRL on their Snapchats even though the screenwriter doesn’t have any idea what any of that actually means. Other times, a film will feature a thinly-drawn cast of caricatures taking up spaces meant for flesh and blood people because some producer somewhere saw The Breakfast Club but missed the point. The worst of them rely on a teacher or parent to dole out life lessons around the hour-fifteen mark because the teenage hero is written as so short-sighted and self-absorbed that they failed to see the obvious solution that’s been right in front of them the entire time. The point is that we often avoid real complexity in these films because we fail to treat teenage issues as real issues that deserve our attention and respect.
The drama is face-paced and the characters are charming, but what’s really on Nerve’s mind is the relationship between our real-world identities and the avatars we create for social media. Watching Nerve is relatively passive — Watchers can hide behind user names — but Players are forced to give up everything from their Facebook photos to their Amazon order histories. It all feeds into building the most comprehensive personal advertisement possible. The more interested the Watchers are, the better the dares will be, the better shot you’ve got at big money. It’s an interesting bit of commentary on the nature of celebrity and the ease with which it seduces us, and it’s constructed in a credible enough way that we never question why a person would streak through a department store or drive blindfolded down a major thoroughfare — money and fame are reason enough. The stakes have to be compelling in order for an intelligent and self-aware young person like Vee to risk life and limb, and it can’t just be the allure of youthful rebellion. Nerve wants its characters to make mistakes and actually learn from them rather than simply face up to some all-knowing authority who’ll set things right.
Emma Roberts doesn’t quite have the chops to carry the heavier moments, but she’s directed very well and rarely put in positions that don’t play to her strengths. Dave Franco hunks about and more or less only speaks when spoken to, which feels exactly right for Dave Franco. Orange is the New Black’s Samira Wiley is a welcome addition as the den mother to an underground cadre of dark web hackers and amateur ping pong players, and it would have been nice to have seen her role expanded a bit. The star supporting performance, though, is Emily Meade as Sydney, the Popular Girl with the chip on her shoulder. Her own obsession with (and ultimate failure in) Nerve is effectively juxtaposed with Vee’s activities — she’s doing it solely for attention, while Vee’s efforts are a bit more altruistic. She’s beautiful and sad and the film never shames her for either of them (again, doing the seemingly-insignificant things right). Her character arcs along with Vee’s and creates the larger emotional stakes necessary to push the film into the third act with real momentum. These sound like basic screenwriting tenants, but it’s amazing how often we see them ignored.
The World’s End), their phones glowing like fireflies in the night. The higher up the Nerve rankings Vee and Ian climb, the more fireflies follow in their wake. It’s a great stylistic choice that adds to the paranoia permeating through the film. Unfortunately, Nerve’s climax — a showdown with two pistols and a thunderdome full of Watchers hungry for blood — is its shakiest moment, a bit stilted and clumsy for a film that has demonstrated so much tonal control. Still, it’s trying to warn us about the dangerous anonymity of the internet and the importance of regaining our humanity when we’re exposed. It’s easy to troll and downvote when there are no consequences, when we don’t see the people we’re tweeting at as human beings. But the minute Shit Gets Real, the minute we’re told (to our real faces and real names) to own up to what we did, we fold. It sounds a bit preachy, but Nerve is the kind of teen movie worth championing, a movie that uses cell phones and Instagrams to say something real.