Nintendo, et al, may be striking it rich on "Pokémon Go," but Lionsgate Films got downright lucky. This week, Lionsgate releases its teen-pandering thriller "Nerve," about a viral online game with the potential to get players in trouble. In the midst of "Pokémon Go" mania, then, "Nerve" gets a zeitgeist shot in the arm.
Adapted by Jessica Sharzer ("American Horror Story") from Jeanne Ryan's 2012 YA novel, "Nerve" concerns high-school senior Venus "Vee" Delmonico (cold, blank-stare Emma Roberts). Her overprotective mother (Juliette Lewis -- and now don't we all feel old?) conspires to keep Vee from her dream school CalArts and helps to make her an archetypal tightly wound stick-in-the-mud. Vee's best friend Sydney (Emily Meade)is just the opposite. This archetypal suck-the-marrow-out-of-life prom queen proves her daring by playing Nerve, an online game that bills a great mass of teen "Watchers" to subsidize paying out prizes to "Players" who perform crowd-sourced dares (while the game's overlords never become more concrete than the pronoun "they").
Naturally, we meet Vee at just about the moment of peak personal frustration that prompts her to sign herself up as a Nerve player. At first, the most sinister thing about Nerve is that the game has read her Facebook page and thereby knows her favorite book is "To the Lighthouse." The initial dares poke Vee out of her romantic shell by forcing a kiss with stranger Ian (Dave Franco) and sending the duo -- yep, he's a player too -- into Manhattan for a department-store dress-up date (which turns into an undress date, ooh la la). Of course, it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt, as Vee's archetypal pining bestie Tommy (Miles Heizer) consistently warns.
That he's obviously motivated as much by jealousy of Ian as by common sense doesn't help Tommy's case, and it's clear that Tommy will be relegated to second-best status until he's required to use his extensive knowledge of the dark web (um, red flag?) and underground hacker connections (err...) to save the day. Obviously, "Nerve" won't be winning any awards for gritty realism, but it's not unreasonable to expect a somewhat more airtight plot than this one or, at minimum, better compensatory distractions than those "Nerve" musters. The escalating, supposedly unnerving dares (including urban high-wire acts and a blindfolded motorcycle ride) lack in tension with their outcomes never in doubt.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman ("Catfish," "Paranormal Activity 3" and "4") do their bit of basic competence with a dash of style (bathing NYC in garish neon), but when this thriller has to turn the screws of its climax, its fundamental stupidity surfaces. Everything about the third act proves preposterous, including a ludicrous arena showdown obviously meant to evoke the bread-and-circuses theme of "The Hunger Games." At least "Nerve" has the good sense to suggest to its young audience that peer pressure and social-media mob mentalities are dangers worth monitoring, but given Vee's liberation and various rewards, it's a mixed message.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence. One hour, 36 minutes.