The ludicrous but amusing teen social-media thriller Nerve is committed to pinning its characters into a world we understand as ours. It opens with Skype, Spotify, Gmail and Chrome, all on the MacBook screen of a mousily beautiful teen, Vee (Emma Roberts), who you just know is one horrific adventure away from self-actualization. Once the voyeuristic creep-outs start and our heroine is broadcasting herself performing stunts for money for a dark-web audience, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (the duo behind Catfish) situate each set piece at a precise Manhattan location, with onscreen titles identifying the cross streets. Perhaps that's meant to help eager young people who might also like to record themselves getting surprise tattoos off St. Mark’s or shimmying into obscenely priced formalwear in Bergdorf Goodman's fitting rooms — and then fleeing the store in what my mom would call their bloomers.
That specificity doesn't exactly ground the story. Vee's adventures come in the form of Nerve, an anonymous game of online dares, which the contestants must record themselves performing on their phones for the pleasure of the watchers who've downloaded the app. It might not surprise you to learn that the dares start out like low-key reality-TV junk — eat a weird thing! Embarrass yourself by singing along to the jukebox! — and soon turn deadly, building by the end to executions before a roaring, in-person crowd. Like most movies, books or concerned blog posts about How the Teens Live Online Now, Nerve has that whiff of older people telling younger people what young people are like.
The imaginative world that the directors layer over the real intersections of ours is as transparently unreal as your neighborhood's crop of Pokemon — it's fun to pretend it might exist, but nobody's going to be calling animal control. Here, every young person in New York pays to watch this dangerous underground game that somehow no adult is in on but is apparently available on easily accessible app stores. Taxis slow down so that passengers can snap photos of Vee, a celebrity two hours after first signing on as a player; occasionally, a squad of hackers shows up to perform code feats indistinguishable from magic.
Like the novel it’s based on, by Jeanne Ryan, Nerve sounds many warnings, most worth heeding: Don't fall for online peer pressure; don't live for likes and clicks; don't let anonymity rob you of your humanity. But at the same time it’s often openly aroused by terrible behavior, giving a thumbs-up to stunts such as racing a motorcycle blindfolded through midtown. That's an act bound to kill dozens, but onscreen it's a cute icebreaker, just the thing for Vee and her mystery-hunk dare partner Ian (Dave Franco) to realize, hey, we should try smoochin'.
None of that is to say that Nerve isn't a pleasurable watch: The city and the plot points wheel right by, the leads fetchingly entranced with each other. If one patch of dares disappoints, there's another coming right up, and the directors stage and shoot them with swooning neon kineticism.
Roberts plays Vee as gently uncertain but always determined, a little stirred by what she finds herself capable of, but she has no time to shade the performance into anything that is itself surprising. Franco flashes the crinkly smile he shares with his brother and can't quite make his character's mysterious past compelling — you get the sense, all along, that he's a good guy truly smitten with Vee, even though he can't tell her everything.
Vee and Ian fly through the night on his motorcycle (stolen for a dare), and they steal occasional romantic interludes — the headiest at Jane's Carousel beneath the Brooklyn Bridge — as the lights of the city wheel around them. Nerve makes it look like there's nothing better in the world than being young and open to suggestions on the streets of New York. And it gets one contemporary truth right: Here, the kids all lit up by the city can't stop poking at their phones.
Still, the film is bafflingly inconsistent in its moralizing. Half of the dares demanded by the online Nerve audience are a frisky turn-on, and half are a nasty terror. The filmmakers consider hanging off a crane on top of a skyscraper much too much, but in that case you're only likely to kill yourself, not carloads of strangers. It's the paying “watchers” of the secret (but omnipresent) Nerve app who cook up the dares that Vee and other players must perform for cash. Despite their bloodlust, the watchers are politely PG-13 chaste: They demand a quick ass flash of Sydney (Emily Meade), Vee's friend/rival, and some occasional underpants shenanigans. What does it say about our online culture that a pop vision of some sickos' online murder game is less disgusting than most young women's actual online experience? Eggs and randos demand n00dz, not teases.
And since it moves at the speed of fiber-optic internet, surging us from one thrill to another, Nerve fails to give Vee even a second to consider the momentousness of kicking off her clothes for an audience of thousands, many of them her friends. She goes from too shy to kiss a stranger for $100 to, one motorcycle montage later, stripping to bra and panties with no apparent moment of decision-making. The film suggests that she's just caught up in the momentum of her night of dares, and it rewards her with mass popularity, a happening fellow and the confidence to seize control of her life.