Nerve and all the images you see in this review are owned by Lionsgate
Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Well if they were gonna make a teenaged version of a David Fincher film, The Game is probably a good place to start. You don’t want to go with Se7en or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo right off the bat! Then again, he already made his own teen movie with The Social Network. Anyway, this new movie starring the less famous (though probably not for long) Franco brother as well as the star of Hotel for Dogs and Nancy Drew (Okay, she was also in American Horror Story and Scream Queens) seems to be trying to tell us something about social media and… I guess dumb asses on YouTube? Whatever this movie is about, it at least has an interesting (if super spoilerific) trailer, so is it possible there’s something actually here to chew on? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with Vee (Emma Roberts) who’s on the cusp of graduating high school but isn’t sure what college she wants to go to. In fact, indecision seems to be her biggest defining feature; possibly brought on by the untimely (and unexplained) death of her brother only two years earlier. Now she’s about to leave the comfort of compulsory education while still never living that true HIGH SCHOOL EXPERIENCETM. Luckily for her, social media and… probably a bunch of libertarian basement dwellers, have JUST the thing for her; an online service called Nerve. Her friend Sydney (Emily Meade) turns her onto it, and it’s basically a webcam site only instead of whipping her boobs out for money, she’s given dares to complete instead. I’m pretty sure whipping her boobs out would have been at least half the dares if this was in the REAL world, but in this movie she’s basically given Jackass style stunts instead. Her “Just Friends” friend Tommy (Miles Heizer) is being a super wet blanket about all this which gives handsome as fuck Ian (Dave Franco) a chance to swoop in as another Nerve Player (you’re either a Player or a Watcher on Nerve) ready to take her on a city wide adventure with riskier and riskier dares for them to complete! Will these two make it through the night of dares with their internal organs intact? What is the true motivation of Ian who JUST SO HAPPENED to be in the same area as Vee? Just what are the evil puppet masters of Nerve planning!? Is it a pizza party!?
This movie was a delightful surprise as I wasn’t expecting too much from it, yet it turned out to be a really solid movie. Everything in here is firing on all cylinders, from the above average cinematography, the strong visual tricks and well-chosen soundtrack, and even the commendable acting from all involved, especially Dave Franco who is seriously gonna end up overtaking his brother as the most charismatic member of that family if James Franco keeps making more movies where he’s an unflattering jackass. I’ll even give the movie credit for having a decent plot that focuses more on the characters than it does on its dopey premise, which is a surprise considering the movie is selling itself so hard on the thriller aspects. Unfortunately, they EVENTUALLY get to the thriller stuff, and that’s where the movie doesn’t just fall apart, but collapses in on itself with such an impact that you’d think Godzilla had a hand in its destruction. The central conceit about this organization run by THE PEOPLE called Nerve never comes off as believable in the slightest, and even though they resist the urge to make it all about that for about three fourths of the movie, it’s in that final part that the movie just leans into it hard and all the flaws in the material as well as the concept itself come to the forefront and completely ruin this film. It may not have had a cut off ending the same way No Country for Old Men did, but I’m hard pressed to think of an ending that’s as disappointing since then. Well… Robert Pattinson was in a movie where the plot twist was 9/11, but this is a close second! And The Last Exorcism… and Now you See Me… look, the ending of this movie sucks, alright!?
Before we get into why this movie blows itself up at the end, let’s get into how this movie works and why it’s such a big disappointment that the ending leaves the story on such a sour note. This movie looks REALLY damn good which is not what I was expecting from something aimed at teenagers (and especially after finding out it’s based on a YA novel). Normally a movie of this caliber would have just enough technical chops so that you don’t even notice the cinematography as the movie goes by, but there’s a lot here that just grabbed my attention and made the experience all the more enjoyable. The movie knows when to saturate its colors which make scenes like the department store dares or the party scene have that much more going for them in immersing you in this environment and in the head space that these characters are in when doing these exhilarating challenges. They incorporate tricks here and there to punctuate scenes that would have been boring or nondescript otherwise (a simple bit of someone riding a bicycle uses a really nice tracking shot) and they know how to make scenes that are thrilling all the more so by emphasizes height, speed, and any relevant danger to the situation. Complementing all these great looking sequences is a soundtrack that has a lot of songs that I may not know, but fit perfectly with the setting and the characters that inhabit this world. It’s an impressive showing all around, especially considering its very modest budget of twenty million which just goes to show that we can have damn good looking and exciting films that don’t require the GDP of a small nation to produce.
Now that’s just all the technical stuff. Where this movie manages to go from really good to damn near exceptional is from the acting of our two main heroes and the story they’re telling here… at least for most of the movie. Until the plot falls off a cliff, it’s actually fascinating to watch Vee’s downward spiral as peer pressure and the rush of adrenaline gets to her and she goes even further and further into the game. Not only that, but Dave Franco is great in here as his motivations may be in question but charm and charisma are not. The guy is well on his way to being a huge star and his role here is no exception which manages to find that right balance between a bad boy with a heart of gold and wolf in sheep’s clothing ready to pounce. Even her friend Sydney is an interesting look at the kind of person who gets obsessed with the game and grows jealous as Vee’s viewership grow throughout the fateful night. This is why it manages to be so good for the majority of the film. It’s about characters that are well written, well-acted, and are in an engrossing story about the excitement and possible pitfalls of internet fame, glory seeking, and just being a teenager.
And this is where we get into what the movie did so egregiously wrong. Now before I start, I must admit that I told a lie earlier. The thing is that it’s not REALLY the ending that ruins the movie; the ending is more of a culmination of the flaws that are present throughout the movie and for me, and I was just sitting there BEGGING the movie to not go in the direction that it was heading in. All my protestations fell on deaf ears unfortunately, and thus my worst fears were realized as if I was witnessing a slow motion crash and had no way to stop it. To sum it up, the movie is a basically a very solid indie drama with some exciting elements in it, that’s constantly interrupted and eventually consumed by the lamest of the lamest techno-thrillers that makes no sense, is completely laughable for its misunderstanding of technology, and its hilariously myopic view of humanity and millennials. Nerve as an entity works best when it is benign; when it’s just a conduit through which people can act out and reveal the worst parts of themselves. In fact, for so much of this movie it COULD have just been a YouTube knock off that does OTHER stuff, but has this one controversial element to it (i.e. those dumb asses who set themselves on fire are for YouTube). The movie doesn’t present itself as a benign entity, but for most of its run time it works that way and that’s where the film gets its power. No one gives a shit about the EVIL WEBSITE doing EVIL STUFF, its’ about Vee discovering her bold side and throwing caution to the wind, whether or not Ian is in this for her or in this for the fans, and if Sydney is using the adulation of the people as a substitute for real friends. Unfortunately, the writers (or at least the original author of the book, Jeanne Ryan) didn’t think that was EDGY or THRILLING enough for a full story, so they completely ruin it by turning Nerve into an Anonymous like cult and this is where all the logic breaks down in a spectacular fashion. I won’t get into details here as it would contain spoilers (though I do go into detail HERE), but the movies attempts to be thrilling or to make us fear the dangers of this new-fangled technology quickly go from humorously absurd to insultingly brain dead.
Other than that, there’s not a whole lot to complain about here. I don’t think Juliette Lewis was all that memorable in her role as Vee’s mom, but it was incredibly minor so for what it’s worth she did fine and it’s nice to see that SOMEONE managed to survive Jem and the Holograms. Similarly, Samira Wiley has a thankless role here as an UBER HACKER friend of Tommy, but despite her being smack dab in the worst part of this move, she manages to at least be solid in the role. Speaking of Tommy, I didn’t like his character all that much which I thought was going to be the point (he would turn out to be a bad guy or something), but that never really happens, so his role feels perfunctory and oddly unappealing without a real reason for it. Still, he’s not in the movie enough to really detract from it, and the rest of the movie is so strong until its ending that whatever small annoyances are peppered throughout can easily be overlooked… until they can’t; because the movie won’t let you.
This movie comes MADDENINGLY close to being a great film to the point that screwing it up is almost impressive. You have to TRY to ruin a movie so completely with such a ham-fisted and inexcusably brain dead ending that undercuts any actual drama there was in the story in favor of… I don’t even know, millennial paranoia? It’s just weird and so disappointing that no one along the way could see how bad of an idea it was to switch focus from these characters to whatever the fuck Nerve is; whether or not it was in the book. Adapting something from one medium to another means that things have to change, and for all I know the organization makes much more sense in the book (leaving it more up to the reader’s imagination) than it is brought to life on the screen. Do I recommend you see this? Honestly, yes. Look, the ending isn’t going to bug everyone the way that it did for me, and since that’s my only real complaint (a HUGE one) then I’m sure that a lot of people will get something out of this. I certainly did until it all fell apart at the end which I guess is better than a crappy movie all the way through.
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