The romantic teen cyber thriller “Nerve” makes for a fascinating double feature with another release this weekend, “Jason Bourne.” Both films want to debate the ways in which online surveillance affects our everyday lives, but while “Bourne” wrestles with the state and corporate America, “Nerve” throws caution to the wind and exchanges privacy for cold, hard cash proffered by a bloodthirsty, anonymous mob.
The jittery, colorful “Nerve” is directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who explored the complicated nuances of digital existence — and invented a euphemism — in the 2010 documentary “Catfish.” “Nerve” is very different, but no less concerned with the consequences of exposing yourself to mysterious forces on the internet.
The film is “Mr. Robot” meets “Battle Royale” with a dash of the stylistic wackiness of Luc Besson’s “Lucy.” Audio-visually, it feels like your best night out, veins coursing with adrenaline, heart thumping with sinewy electronic music. It feels like existing inside a smartphone, as the actors swipe, like, tap and livestream their way through the game.
The game is called Nerve; it’s truth or dare on steroids for millions of online viewers. It demands: Are you a Watcher or a Player? Reserved Staten Island teenager Vee (Emma Roberts) signs up as a Player after a blowup with her wild best friend Sydney (Emily Meade). Vee’s finally ready to break out of her shell and take life one dare at a time. On her first assignment, she connects with Ian (Dave Franco), and the horde demands that the two team up to tackle their dares, which escalate dangerously.
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Roberts and Franco are just winsome enough to serve as the romantic leading couple, but they’re eclipsed by the far more charismatic and ruthless players Sydney and Ty (Colson Baker, aka rapper Machine Gun Kelly). They capture the edgy desperation that the game draws out in the thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies who just don’t know where to draw the line.
“Nerve” is highly attuned to the realities of clandestine digital surveillance. The players talk about how the app scrapes their networked existence of internet cookie crumbs to tailor dares to each individual — but they nonchalantly offer up their exposed online selves in exchange for cash, as well as likes and follows, which are almost more prized. This is informed consent to be scrutinized for money, an attitude we’re familiar with in our world of Instagram stars and branded Snapchats.
Exposure is currency but it’s also a weapon, one that can be wielded against the Players, who become online stars, and the Watchers, who hide behind screens and masks, cheering for the game to get more dangerous like the crowd at a Roman coliseum. With a decentralized, shadowy group of Watchers and bots in charge of the game, the only way out is to play.
As “Nerve” builds to a roaring Thunderdome climax (which is resolved all too easily), it starts to lose its grip. But the ride is a neon-saturated teenage dream, high on first kisses and digital hearts. Joost, Schulman and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer (who adapted the book by Jeanne Ryan) clearly know their internet culture and jargon and they demonstrate the way in which technology has slid into our lives. The future is now — we’re here, there’s no dystopian world where Nerve might exist, because obviously, we’re already playing the game.
☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Juliette Lewis, Colson Baker, Emily Meade.
Director: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman.
Running time: 1:36.
Rated: PG-13, for thematic material involving dangerous and risky behavior, some sexual content, language, drug content, drinking and nudity, all involving teenagers.