If someone offered you $100 to kiss a stranger, would you do it? That’s one of the many predicaments Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts) finds herself in. The film adaptation of Jeanne Ryan’s young adult novel Nerve explores issues such as peer pressure and online safety. Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those boring Lifetime movies teachers show you in health class.
In the film, a new app called Nerve has taken the nation by storm. The game allows you to take on dares and receive money as a reward. There are three rules: all dares must be recorded on your phone via livestream; if you fail or bail a dare you will lose all the money you’ve earned; and you cannot report the game to law enforcement. The last two players left standing compete in a final round to determine the ultimate winner. Upon signing up, you can be either a Player—accepting dares for money—or a Watcher—receiving an anonymous screen name under which you provide Players with dares while observing the subsequent action from your phone.
Vee is the last teenager you’d expect to get swept up into the craze. Unlike her best friend and avid Nerve player Sydney (Emily Meade), Vee isn’t a daredevil seeking the spotlight. Rather, she resides in the background as Sydney’s sidekick. Frustration starts to build inside Vee when she is accepted to CalArts but can’t work up the nerve to tell her mother. (Her brother passed away recently and her mother may be reluctant to let her travel far from their home in New York). Later that day, Sydney verbally dares Vee to talk to her crush J.P. (Brian Marc). When Vee refuses, Sydney asks J.P. out for Vee, resulting in her public humiliation when J.P. indicates that Vee isn’t his type. Heartbroken and through with being passive, Vee signs up for Nerve as a Player.
Each dare is a gripping sequence that makes you share Vee’s feeling of uneasiness. A timer creates a sense of urgency and the window for any Player’s hesitation grows narrower as the dares intensify. Vee’s first dare—kissing a stranger—escalates from simple nerves into a pulse-pounding experience. As Vee talks to the person she is planning to kiss, we see the clock count down on her phone while her view-count increases, building anticipation for what will happen next. A subsequent dare challenges Vee to get up to 60 mph on a motorcycle while blindfolded. It’s a nail-biting scene, as a simple mistake could send Vee to the hospital or worse.
I know what you’re thinking: who in their right mind would do this? Indeed, leaving might seem easy from an outsider’s point of view; but when you’re a Player, it’s hard to quit. Whenever Vee is ready to stop, another dare that’s too good to refuse arises. As humans, we’ve all wondered what fame would feel like, and Vee gets to experience it firsthand as her fame and fortune grow with each triumph. Vee’s rash actions are not met without criticism—her friend Tommy (Miles Heizer) raises concerns about the game—but she brushes them away with the classic promise that she will stop after one more round.
Nerve doesn’t have a main villain and is better off without one, as the characters are meant to represent the everyman. Creating a main antagonist would redirect all the blame that should fall on the Players for putting their lives on the line, and the Watchers for proposing dangerous dares. Thankfully, there is no central figurehead because the app is open-source, or powered by the users, allowing the viewers to identify with the characters in the film.
Despite its strengths, however, Nerve easily breaks down upon scrutiny due to its many leaps in logic. With footage of Vee’s escapades dominating dozens of screens, I expected the CalArts admissions staff to take notice; but adults across the nation are inexplicably in the dark about Nerve. Teenagers are dying by the masses by performing daredevil stunts such as lying in the path of oncoming trains—where are the Breaking News stories about the sudden spike in teenager deaths, and why aren’t the authorities conducting an investigation? Is the media being fed juicy gossip to divert public attention? Are officers being bribed to look the other way? Without an explanation, it is implausible that adults would be oblivious to what is happening.
Whether you are a Player or a Watcher, Nerve shows how anyone be a victim of peer pressure or become drunk with the power of anonymity. Its message isn’t shown through tedious lectures; but through exciting action scenes in which it’s difficult to give logic more than a second’s thought.