Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman prove they still have their fingers on the digital pulse with this fast-moving teen thriller about an online dare game.

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Nerve Emma Roberts Dave Franco

Exploiting social media’s seductive pull and insidious grip to dramatic effect, nippy teen thriller Nerve will strike a chord with its target audience.

Many, too, will identify with Emma Roberts’ shy heroine Vee, a timid Staten Island high school student who steps perilously out of her comfort zone when she signs up for the online dare game of the title.

‘NERVE’ divides its users into Watchers and Players, the former inciting the latter to complete ever more outlandish dares on camera in return for cash sums and online followers. Vee has so far spent her life as a watcher, unlike her exhibitionist best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade). Indeed, she’s so bottled up she can’t bring herself to inform her clingy, overprotective single mom (an atypical role for screen rebel Juliette Lewis) of her desire to attend art school in Southern California rather than a local college.

Nerve Emma Roberts Diner

“The spur she needs”

Then comes yet another put-down from her brash pal. It’s the spur she needs to prove to the world, and to herself, that she is more than just a wallflower. Emboldened, if only for the moment, she enrols as a Player. By so doing, she gives ‘NERVE’ access to her entire social media history, exposing all her dreams and fears. Tailored accordingly, her first challenge is to kiss a stranger in a public place.

The man she picks is cute Ian (Dave Franco), spotted reading Virginia Woolf in a diner. He turns out to be a Player, too, and the online community of anonymous Watchers is soon egging on the pair to carry out dares as a team.

Their first challenges are high-spirited larks – trying on expensive clothes in tony Manhattan store Bergdorf Goodman, darting across the city on a flashy motorbike. With smartphone cameras relaying their feats to the ‘NERVE’ public, Vee and Ian’s online fans grow in number (putting Sydney’s pert nose very much out of joint). But the deeper into the game they get, the more dangerous it becomes.

Nerve Emma Roberts smartphone

“Fingers on the digital pulse”

For its first two-thirds, Nerve zips along with engaging verve. Roberts and Franco, though a tad old for the roles, make empathetic leads and directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman give the action a slick energy. Things do fall off in the closing stages, and the story’s resolution doesn’t bear the slightest scrutiny, but until then the film hits the right balance between escapist thrills and cautionary monitions.

With a few tweaks, the film’s premise – taken from Jeanne Ryan’s young-adult novel – could be the set-up for a horror film with a mounting body count. Joost and Schulman made Paranormal Activity 3 and 4, but they are clearly aiming at a younger demographic here (the film has a US PG-13 rating) and calibrate the scares and suspense accordingly.

Back in 2010 Joost and Schulman explored the perils of online interaction with their acclaimed 2010 documentary Catfish. Nerve proves they still have their fingers on the digital pulse.

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Certificate 15. Runtime 96 mins. Directors Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman