NerveNerve had the good fortune to be released in the same week that Pokémon Go may have crested. The underlying conceit of the film is that a game app for smart phones could be so alluring that it would drive users outside to play it. What once could have been dismissed as satiric science fiction is now an established fact. If you doubt the potential power of apps, go to any urban area and watch for the folks holding their phones slightly above waist level as they shuffle forward and swipe, occasionally breaking the spell to shout, “I got a Jigglypuff!”

The app in the film is called Nerve, but it could be called Dare or I Bet You. Users register as players or watchers (the latter forking over $19.99 for a 24-hour window). Players are challenged to complete tasks directly tied to personal phobias culled from data mining online profiles. Predictably, there’s a good bit of being in public naked and almost falling off tall buildings. Complete the dare and a deposit is made in your bank account. Fail or bail, and you lose everything. Oh, and don’t forget – snitches get stitches, so don’t tell your mom or the cops.

Sound familiar? That could be because it was almost the exact same premise in 13 Sins (2014), in which random individuals were selected to participate in a game show that provided increasing cash rewards for finishing increasingly difficult tasks. For the missing head-to-head element, add the outstanding feature Cheap Thrills (2013), which saw a couple in a bar egg two friends on in a series of dares that escalated dramatically over the course of an evening.

The difference in Nerve, outside of the technological upgrade, is the group of protagonists. The action in the film is confined mainly to a group of high school students – or, rather, Hollywood’s version of high school students which features beautiful adults in the 25-29 age range. That generally requires a suspension of disbelief beyond this critic’s capacity. The situation is exacerbated when the cast includes members of very adult shows like Orange is the New Black. Kimiko Glenn (Solo) and Samira Wiley (Poussey) apparently got out of Litchfield on a work release program, but are likely to have time added to their sentences for bad impersonations of teen agers.

Our protagonist is Emma Roberts who may be one of those actresses that goes almost directly from high school roles to Hollywood motherhood. (Oh, hi, Mila Kunis – how did you know we were talking about you?) Emma is Vee – short for Venus. Seriously. Her mother, played by Juliette Lewis, apparently took one look at her newborn and thought, “Porn star.” But Emma, as watchers of the game Nerve point out, still has the body of a ten-year old boy. So Vee is going to college, although dead brother, single mother, Staten Island, riding the ferry, yada, yada, yada, she can’t go to the one she wants.

Vee is a loser and a geek, a photographer for the yearbook who is crushing on the captain of the football team and who spends her time as a sidekick to the slutty, but popular Sydney (Emily Meade). But when Vee gets pushed too far, she decides to show them all by signing up for Nerve as a player or playah or whatever version will make her really cool. She falls in with a partner, Ian (Dave Franco – brother of James and proof that James Franco’s grating personality and lack of talent is apparently not genetic).  Through Ian, Vee finds out there is an underside to the game (Duh!), but she and her geeky band of warriors have a plan to win the game, win the guy, and win her way to the college of her dreams.

Emma Roberts is solid here, and she looks terrific in the dress she takes from Bergdorf Goodman on a dare. Franco is genuinely charming. Rapper Machine Gun Kelly acquits himself nicely as the semi-menacing presence Ty. The rest of the cast is fine, only it would have been a relief to them and to the audience if they had been allowed to play the 20-somethings they are. The story would not have suffered.

One can only assume that directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are making a rather brazen attempt at establishing themselves as genre filmmaker for teens. The duo also had their film Viral appear on demand this week. Viral is weak tea venereal horror centered around high school students. Nerve is slightly more successful, but neither film depicts high schoolers in what can be considered an “authentic” way. Rather, it seems that the stories are stuck in high schools for marketing purposes, although that seems a rather dubious business decision. Perhaps someone could dare Joost and Schulman to make a movie by and for grown-ups as their next challenge.

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