Friday, July 29, 2016

Nerve: Taut, timely little thriller

Nerve (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dangerous and risky behavior, sexual candor, violence, profanity, drug content and fleeting nudity, all involving teens

By Derrick Bang

Numerous psychological studies — most famously Stanley Milgram’s electro-shock obedience experiments, and Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise — have demonstrated the malleability of human judgment, particularly when peer pressure is involved.

Having heard once too often that she's timid and unwilling to do anything wild and
impetuous, Vee (Emma Roberts) impulsively signs up for an Internet social media game:
as a "player" who, during the course of a single evening, will be challenged by a series
of increasingly dangerous "dares."
Or, to put it more bluntly, Common sense ... isn’t.

Novelist Jeanne Ryan tapped into that vibe, and quite shrewdly, with her 2012 young adult novel Nerve. Co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have turned the book into a thoughtful, absorbing and quite suspenseful little thriller. Jessica Sharzer’s script is spot-on, and the young stars are well cast. The result is one of the summer’s delightful surprises: a modest suspenser that also functions as a troubling cautionary tale.

Because, quite frankly, the premise feels all too probable. As Ryan notes, on her web site, “I write young adult stories that could take place next week — but let’s hope they don’t.”

Joost and Schulman mount their film cleverly, utilizing cutting-edge personal tech and on-screen graphics in a way that supports the narrative without calling too much attention to itself. Unlike so many of today’s “found footage” efforts, where the story runs a poor second to the technique, the various gimmicks here — CGI overlays, instant message “balloons,” visualized smart phone apps and more — feel necessary.

Best of all, the co-directors understand pacing. With a skilled assist from editors Madeleine Gavin and Jeff McEvoy, they briskly set up the premise, kick it into gear, ratchet up the suspense, and build to a stylish finale, all in an economical 96 minutes. It’s refreshing to see filmmakers who know when to get off the stage.

Shy, straight-arrow Staten Island high school senior Vee Delmonico (Emma Roberts) forever stands in the shadow of her outgoing, aggressively slutty best friend Sydney (Emily Meade). The latter is a school legend, always accompanied by an entourage led by Liv (Kimiko Glenn), who functions as Sydney’s de facto press agent.

Every waking moment of these teens’ lives is monitored and motivated by an imprudent desire to enhance the 15 minutes of faux fame seemingly promised by Facebook, Tinder, Instagram and their ilk. It’s a drug that requires ever-greater fixes: an addiction that Vee has managed to resist, thanks to the support of longtime best friend Tommy (Miles Heizer), who seems to understand the dangerous side effects of public recklessness.

But that’s of little consolation to Vee, who also chafes under the suffocating embrace of her mother, Nancy (Juliette Lewis). Mom has cause: Just a few years earlier, Vee’s older brother was killed tragically. As a result, Nancy expects her sole remaining child to continuing living at home while attending a local college, whereas Vee — of course — has her heart set on a distant arts school, where she could nurture her talents as a photographer.

(Sharzer’s script is good, but not perfect. Details regarding Vee’s brother’s death remain undisclosed, as does any information about her absent father. These lapses aren’t crippling, but they are noticeable.)

Sydney’s Internet-fueled “status” has resulted from her participation in a social media phenomenon called Nerve, in which thrill-seeking “players” accept increasingly risky dares from anonymous “watchers.” The rewards are financial, but only for those who continue playing; bowing out — cruelly dubbed “failing” — forfeits all earnings.

Following a particularly humiliating day — and to Tommy’s horror — Vee impulsively signs up as a player. Her first dare: to drive to a particular diner and kiss a total stranger. Tommy tags along to record the action on his smart phone, to “prove” that it’s actually taking place, thus placating the unseen watchers. Vee strolls the restaurant aisle, mentally rejecting this guy and that one, and abruptly plants a five-second smacker on a surprised, good-looking fellow who then introduces himself as Ian (Dave Franco).

Problem is, Vee isn’t savvy enough — at least, not yet — to realize that her choice probably wasn’t as spontaneous as she might have thought. She doesn’t stop to consider the implications behind the “coincidence” that Ian is reading one of her favorite books: that by signing up for Nerve, she granted unseen parties access to her entire life — which kids cheerfully record and preserve on their laptops, tablets and smart phones — and that this initial dare, as with all others to follow, has been custom-crafted based on her aspirations and fears.

Ryan’s book ingeniously tapped into the subtle dangers of modern society’s absence of privacy, coupled with an indiscreet, share-all mindset. This film exploits that paranoia with a vengeance, indicting the very thing that makes Internet anonymity so dangerous: the fact that people aren’t themselves while hiding behind a computer screen. They do things — say things, demand things — that would remain off limits in shared company.

Vee’s kiss having resulted in a $100 windfall, she’s charmed when the watchers insist that Ian respond by serenading her with a Roy Orbison tune. Vee and Ian “click” as a couple, with the Internet community; subsequent dares keep them together.

While becoming more morally ambiguous. And dangerous.

Funny how momentum and exhilaration work. As her whirlwind evening begins, Vee firmly sets boundaries with Ian: The moment she becomes uncomfortable, she’s out. Alas, as we’ve all experienced, that “moment” recedes ever further, in the heat of excitement.

Roberts is ideal as this impressionable young heroine: a credible blend of intelligence, vulnerability and timidity. She sheds the latter trait persuasively, her eyes aglow as Vee gets caught up in the rush of events. Roberts is believably schoolgirl-level giddy and giggly, and petite enough, at 25, to still look like a high school senior (as opposed to a few of her co-stars, rather long in the tooth for their roles).

We’re on Vee’s side from the moment we meet her, and that’s down to Roberts. She makes Vee’s progressively rash behavior fun and larkish ... until, suddenly, it isn’t. And if the penny only drops for Vee long after we’ve mentally yelled for the poor girl to come to her senses, well, that’s the nature of the drama.

Franco has a far greater challenge: Ian must remain both charming (in Vee’s eyes) and sinister (in ours), and that’s a tall order. Franco’s aw-shucks charisma — and his captivating, face-splitting grin — are hard to resist, and Vee can be excused for so quickly succumbing to this Cinderella-swept-off-her-feet adventure. But there’s also something dark hiding behind Ian’s eyes: something that Vee overlooks. This guy has secrets.

Meade is appropriately pouty, manipulative and skanky as Sydney: a gal who’s bad news (and it’s difficult to believe she hasn’t been expelled from school). But it’s not a one-note performance; Sydney eventually confronts her own behavior, and Meade makes that transition reasonably well.

Heizer is just right as the earnest, adorable and ferociously computer-savvy Tommy, who has long carried a torch for Vee. He has his own familiarity with the “dark web” regions of the Internet, which fuel his concerns that Vee is swimming in very dangerous waters.

Colson Baker (aka rapper Machine Gun Kelly) is flat-out scary as the menacing Ty, a veteran Nerve participant who gets annoyed by Vee’s mounting popularity. Samira Wiley stands out as Kween, one of Tommy’s hacker buddies; Internet pop-culture commentator Josh Ostrovsky is a hoot in his cameo as a tattoo artist (an experience Vee survives through gritted teeth, masking the pain by — rather adorably — rapping a Wu-Tang Clan lyric).

Rob Simonsen’s dramatic underscore is rarely heard, mostly buried beneath a wall-to-wall soundtrack of pop, rap and techno hits by Basenji, Jess Kent, Sweetmates, Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams, Diplomats of Solid Sound, Darke Complex and dozens of others. Like the film’s many CGI tics and hiccups, the music is flamboyantly ubiquitous ... but that, too, seems appropriate for this storyline.

The major problem — one that afflicts many conspiracy-minded narratives — is that Sharzer’s script paints itself into a corner. Third-act revelations come too quickly and easily, particularly since we — and Vee — have, by this point, been conditioned to trust and believe nothing and nobody. The climax feels suspiciously pat, as if an epilogue were left on the cutting-room floor.

But that letdown is minimal. Nerve is a nifty, disturbingly relevant and quite engaging little thriller: far more satisfying than Joost and Schulman’s previous collaborations on the one-note sequels in the Paranormal Activity franchise.

On top of which, the filmmakers and distributors must be delighted by serendipitous current events. Because, before you even think about saying, Well, that never could happen in real life ... consider the careless, thoughtless, clueless idiots — often adults — who’ve been disrupting funerals, crashing their cars and bicycles, and walking off cliffs (!) while playing Pokémon Go.

The bigger concern, I fear, is that this film will inspire real-world imitators.

Wait and see.

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