"Player or watcher?" Nerve asks, and it's not an easy question to answer. The query may stem from the fictional dare-based game that gives the film its name, but there's no missing the real-world parallels. In these Snapchat-sending, Vine-streaming, Pokemon GO-playing times, this tech-savvy thriller feels relevant to the minute. With our lives increasingly lived through screens, our connections and conversations more often virtual than physical, and our days whiled away either posting selfies, or watching others do the same, the question needs to be asked: where do we draw the line?
These are the big issues touched upon in Nerve, a film that's hardly subtle about the negative influence the internet has had on human behaviour. Thankfully, the film never tries to lecture millennials about their preferred pastimes. Instead, Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman keep toying with their favourite topics via a slickly and swiftly-told tale that never fails to entertain, even if the underlying narrative doesn't always stand up to scrutiny. But hey, when you're making a film about people doing reckless things for online fame and fortune, a certain number of illogical choices are to be expected.
When Venus Delmonico (Emma Roberts) musters up the courage to participate in the live-streamed game, her spur-of-the-moment decision ends up being the first of many. The studious 17-year-old is motivated in part by the prize money she could put towards attending a Californian college, but also by a desire to venture beyond her comfort zone after being rejected by her football hero crush (Brian Marc).
Kissing a stranger is Vee's first task, and when she locks lips with Ian (Dave Franco) in a diner, she discovers that he's playing the game as well. At first the viewing public seems eager for them to pair up, venture into New York, try on fancy clothes and get tattoos. But as the young duo begins to lure in more eyeballs, the dares become not just more lucrative, but more dangerous as well.
Much of this movie's charms come from simply watching Vee and Ian roam around Manhattan, reacting to the challenges thrown their way and letting their mutual attraction flourish. Indeed, the film's first half doubles as a different take on the usual walk-and-talk movie date scenario. That Roberts and Franco make an engaging and enthusiastic pair helps; that Joost and Schulman are just as vibrant and energetic in their pacing and style does as well.
Of course as enjoyable as it is watching the two lead actors race around attempting ridiculous feats, this effort about online entertainment isn't all fun and games. When Nerve wanders deeper into darker territory more akin to David Fincher's The Game, it's not always as successful – in fact, the feature's third act is positively silly. But by then, you're a watcher, and you can't tear your eyes away.