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Tech-heavy 'Nerve's' style wrestles its substance into a cinematic stalemate

Posted August 1

"NERVE" — 2 stars — Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer; PG-13 (thematic material involving dangerous and risky behavior, some sexual content, language, drug content, drinking and nudity — all involving teens); in general release

“You guys are the dumbest smart kids I’ve ever met.”

That line comes from one of the only adult characters in “Nerve,” a young adult thriller that very much wants to be a commentary on the upcoming generation.

Based on a novel by Jeanne Ryan, “Nerve” is named for a mobile game which describes itself as “Truth or Dare” without the truth bit. Interested parties can sign up to be either a “Player” or a “Watcher.” Players get issued a series of challenges that, when met, earn the user money and, perhaps more importantly, the attention of the Watchers. But since Nerve can access your online profile, it can customize your dares to all of your worst fears.

“Nerve’s” protagonist is a Player named Vee (short for Venus, played by Emma Roberts). Vee is a photographer for her local Staten Island high school who decides to join the game in a fit of bravery after getting rejected by her crush. A broken heart can lead to unwise spontaneity.

Vee’s first dare is to kiss a total stranger, and the total stranger she kisses just happens to be another Player, Ian (Dave Franco). Ian is a thrill-seeking motorcycle rider who doesn’t tell Vee that this isn’t his first experience with the game.

Soon, the pair is off to Manhattan, where they are given a variety of dares, all broadcast to enthusiastic Watchers throughout the city. Some of the dares are fairly routine, such as trying on an expensive dress. Others are more daring, such as in “Nerve’s” most exciting sequence, where Vee and Ian have to ride Ian’s motorcycle at 60 miles per hour while he’s blindfolded.

When we’re not following Vee and Ian around on their adventures, we’re plugged in with two of Vee’s best friends. Sydney (Emily Meade) is a desperate attention hound whose obsession with the game inspired Vee in the first place. Tommy (Miles Heizer) is Vee’s confidant, conveniently stuck in the Friend Zone, who tries to use his expertise on the dark internet to help her to safety once things start getting dangerous.

Once Vee’s direct deposits start coming through — Nerve also accesses your bank account — her mother Nancy (Juliette Lewis) finds out what’s going on, since she’s also on the account. Nancy is pretty much the only relevant adult character in the movie, though like the other adults, she seems to be at the mercy of the all-powerful technology around her.

“Nerve” is very interested in technology. Everything from texting to web surfing to video chatting is brought to life with stylish animated visuals. The tactic makes sense in that “Nerve” is all about our dependence on technology, but it will also make directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s movie into a heavily dated time capsule for 2016.

When it isn’t animating our technology, “Nerve” is trying to deliver a laundry list of social commentaries. It’s a critique of our fame-obsessed society and the spawn of the reality television generation. It’s a warning about how we justify heinous behavior while hiding behind anonymous internet code names. And at times, it’s a statement about how 15-year-old iMacs can still be useful when set up in spooky shipping crates.

The concept behind “Nerve’s” plot is interesting enough, and its myriad messages are certainly noble. But all the style-heavy delivery, some mixed messaging, and a third-act collapse undo all of its best intentions. In more skilled hands, and with a little more restraint, “Nerve” might have been the sobering cautionary tale it wants to be. Instead, “Nerve” is style wrestling substance into a stalemate.

“Nerve” is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving dangerous and risky behavior, some sexual content, language, drug content, drinking and nudity — all involving teens; running time: 96 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.

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