"The computer stuff will interest anyone into such things." So observed Roger Ebert upon the release of The Net, almost 20 years to the day before that of the social media thriller Nerve. What a difference a couple of decades makes.
The late critic possessed a formidable intelligence, but, every now and then, he could miss the point. The silly-but-sort-of-prescient Sandra Bullock vehicle wasn't significant for its updating of Hitchcockian tropes, as Ebert maintained. It was significant because it was the first movie to make the internet a character. "Anyone into such things" is a phrase that couldn't be used in the same context today. Virtually everyone is connected by "computer stuff."
And few filmmakers understand this stuff better than Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the team behind Catfish, a 2010 documentary that stumbled on a web phenomenon so icky and transfixing it became a verb. And, of course, a reality show. Catfish began as a movie about the life of Joost's brother — yawn — and wound up a digital-age-defining milestone after the person with whom he'd developed an online romantic relationship turned out not to be who she claimed.
Here, the filmmakers don't rely on digital serendipity but on a surprisingly gripping script by Jessica Sharzer, based on Jeanne Ryan's 2012 YA novel. Emma Roberts stars as Vee, a Staten Island high school senior and apparent wallflower. She lives in the shadow of BFF Sydney (Emily Meade), a popular airhead who'll do anything for attention. This includes playing Nerve, a semi-legal online game in which players accept increasingly dangerous dares in exchange for money from thousands of watchers. As the risk level rises, so does the payoff.
Determined to break out of her good-girl rut, Vee signs up without telling her mother (Juliette Lewis — can you believe Juliette Lewis is playing a mother? Where did the time go?). From the point of view of smartphone screens, we watch as dares come in, money is instantly deposited in bank accounts, and the number of each player's followers rises and falls. Since these are the same screens the game's watchers see, the gimmick has the clever effect of turning the audience into complicit voyeurs.
Things start harmlessly enough. Vee's first dare is to kiss a stranger. She's drawn to a young man in a diner reading a copy of To the Lighthouse. (Along with her bank account, the game has mined her online identity and helped itself to her Facebook profile, in which she lists Woolf's novel as her favorite.) The hunky bookworm turns out to be fellow player Ian (Dave Franco). The pair embarks on a night in the city, accepting ever more perilous and profitable challenges. At one point they careen down the midnight streets doing 60 on Ian's motorcycle, with him blindfolded while Vee steers by leaning left and right.
Things get darker as the sun begins to rise. Ian, we learn, has a secret past with Nerve. A creepy competitor (rapper Machine Gun Kelly) stalks Vee and draws blood. Masked watchers line the streets, streaming the increasingly violent final innings of that day's game. The film comments thoughtfully on the way anonymity can enable cruelty.
Citizen Kane it isn't, but Nerve is decidedly tough to turn away from. It's preposterous but propulsive and never less than compelling in its perception of current digital culture and the craving for instant fame wrought by reality TV. Think "Fear Factor" meets The Hunger Games. This is a dazzling, dizzying summer surprise, a thriller tailor-made for the age of Snapchat, Instagram and a presidential campaign run on tweets.