Venus Delmonico isn’t a popular girl.
Oh, sure, she certainly has an exotic name. But few people would see her as anything other than shy and awkward. She’s the kind of person who’s easily overlooked. Maybe that’s why everybody in high school just calls her Vee.
That’s if they call her anything at all.
Vee’s friend Sydney, however, is definitely the noticeable sort. In fact, she does all she can to stand out and to grab as much attention as possible. That’s the main reason she was one of the first kids in school to start playing the trendy new game Nerve. Think of it as sort of an Internet-streaming version of truth or dare—only without the truth part.
In this game, you’re either a Player or a Watcher. An anonymous online group sets up outrageous challenges, and Players who accept and succeed at the dares get paid. Watchers simply pay to see all the craziness unfold via any given smartphone in the vicinity. The bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff and the bigger the online crowd.
Which, of course, is why Syd is always a Player. She’s addicted to the attention she gets. She relishes her growing throng of followers. Loves the online spotlight. So maybe that’s why she and Vee get along so well. Syd can wow her audience, and Vee never gets in the way.
The truth is, though, down deep, Vee has always wanted to do at least a little wowing of her own. She’s an introvert, sure, but when you’re always the one standing in the wings, that gets old. Just once she’d like to take a brief walk out on the big stage, too.
So when Syd berates her friend for, once again, never taking the smallest of chances, Vee decides it’s time. She’ll step up. She’ll sign onto that stupid Nerve game herself. She’ll accept a dare and see where it leads. So there!
What Vee doesn’t realize, however, is that Nerve is more than it seems. When someone let’s this “game” into their computer, into their world, it takes things. It gathers all the crumbs from cookies that players have left in their online travels. It watches from every camera and every passing phone.
And before you can say “stolen identity” the people behind the game have dredged up Vee’s bank accounts. Her passwords. They raid her Facebook page and know her likes, her fears, her desires.
They know exactly what kind of guy she would go for— someone they surreptitiously connect her with through a series of carefully orchestrated dares. He’s a fellow Player (though she doesn’t know that immediately) named Ian. They also know just the amount of adrenaline it will take to get her hooked, to propel Vee from one simple dare to the next bigger one.
And so the money comes in. The passing Nerve fans cheer. Before you know it, a very popular new online girl named Vee is all in.
Nerve suggests that following through on Internet dares and seeking out online notoriety can be dangerous and foolhardy. However, it ultimately rewards those who “game the game” in equally foolish and dangerous ways.
Though a deceptive pretense lurks behind Ian’s initial connection with Vee, he eventually comes to care for her and is willing to sacrifice for her wellbeing.
During a public dare, Syd lifts up the back of her cheerleading outfit to reveal the she isn’t wearing any underwear. The camera lingers on her naked backside. Later, a form-fitting T-shirt reveals that Syd is still traveling underwear-free. We also see Syd straddling and making out with a guy in bed. (Both are clothed). Vee publically shames Syd, stating that she regularly welcomes a “revolving door of guys” in her room.
Vee’s first dare involves kissing a stranger for five seconds, which she does. For her part, Vee doesn’t know that her smooch with Ian is actually a setup. Later, after a night of joint dares, the two kiss passionately. Vee is also challenged to try on a very expensive dress, and the camera watches as she strips to her underwear (as online watchers post lude comments in response). Then she and Ian are both forced to run off in their skivvies when their clothes and wallets are stolen.
Several young women wear outfits that showcase cleavage or bare midriffs. There’s discussion about a Nerve dare that involved a naked player, peanut butter and a pet dog. A brief online image shows a girl’s bare backside being slapped.
Several scenes glamourize young people doing risky, reckless things, such as jumping off cliffs, walking on a ladder suspended between two buildings and being pulled behind a car on a skateboard. We watch as Vee navigates for a blindfolded Ian—who’s trying to reach 60 mph on a motorcycle in traffic. Elsewhere, a guy lays in the middle of railroad tracks as a train screams by above him.
Some of these stunts go awry, thumping players in painful-looking ways. And in one case, a guy hanging from a crane falls to an offscreen death.
A big guy punches Vee in the face, knocking her out and leaving her with a gash under her eye. Several teens wave handguns around at one point as a crowd prompts them to shoot each other. One pulls the trigger and another appears to die.
A half dozen s-words join several uses each of “a–,” “h—” and “b–ch.” “Oh my god!” is exclaimed a dozen times. Several people use obscene hand gestures. We see a censored f-word on a bumper sticker.
A large group of high school teens drink and smoke at a party. Syd gets drunk before wobbling out to attempt a particularly dangerous dare.
Vee’s mom appears powerless and feckless in her response to her daughter’s increasingly perilous choices. Syd follows through on a dare where she has to pass gas on a number of strangers. Other dares range from eating dogfood to trying to steal from a police officer. Ian steals a motorcycle.
Vee is clearly a fan of the problematic rap band the Wu-Tang Clan, going so far as to rap along with one of the band’s songs when it’s played.
Ah, the Internet. What a tangled web it weaves. And what a tangled relationship we have with it.
On one hand, we’ve come to depend upon—and even take for granted—the Internet’s almost magical ability to instantaneously provide virtually any information we’re searching for. And for those who want to leverage this medium into cyber-stardom, the World Wide Web tantalizingly tempts otherwise average folks to believe that they can become household names. All it takes is a properly placed camera, enough eyeballs watching and enough thumbs clicking a “like” button.
On the other hand, we fear that that mysterious network of people and servers might someday hack into our lives and steal everything we hold dear. And that feat doesn’t require anything except someone knowing you’re out there.
Nerve, based on a 2012 young adult novel by Jeanne Ryan, plays on that love/hate relationship with the Internet. It tells a tale of pretty young things who are willing to risk life and limb for a splash of cash and dash of celebrity in their otherwise ordinary lives. And there’s just enough subtext beneath its kids-on-a-digital-dare veneer to keep watchers of the Watchers involved and hoping for a thought-provoking assessment of these contemporary concerns by film’s end.
Alas, Nerve loses its own before reaching any wise conclusions. The movie simply runs out of steam, out of time and out of ideas. Instead of a cautionary commentary, what we’re left with is a collection of pretty people doing reckless stuff while baring just enough skin to attract young viewers but sneak under the R-rated threshold.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.