In 2010's Catfish, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman showed a rare intelligence about how social media gives people the illusion of intimacy while actually alienating us from one another. It was messy and ambiguous - like life.
With Nerve, they repackage the same insights in a romantic thriller. It's slick and audience-friendly, like the Hollywood fantasy it sets out to be.
Adapted from Jeanne Ryan's young adult novel, the film stars Emma Roberts (Scream Queens) as Vee, a studious, cautious high school senior from Staten Island whose one act of defiance enmeshes her in a dangerous contest cooked up on a social-media forum.
The "Nerve" competition, which evokes reality shows like Fear Factor and Jackass, charges users - called watchers - a fee that entitles them to challenge contestants to an increasingly dangerous series of stunts that are streamed live to watchers' smartphones.
Dave Franco (21 Jump Street, Now You See Me 2) stars as Ian, a mysterious and hunky Nerve player who pops up in Vee's life.
With a leather jacket and a big, shiny motorcycle, Ian has the whole James Dean thing going on. He's the perfect panacea to Vee's mounting anxiety about leaving her overprotective mom (Natural Born Killers' Juliette Lewis) to go to college.
Roberts and Franco are a great match, generating a playful, sexy electricity as they throw themselves into one adventure after another over the course of a seductively lighted Manhattan night.
Nerve gives moviegoers everything they'd want from a teen romance. It's a little less successful as a critique of life in the age of Instagram.
Simplified and flattened for a Hollywood-shaped audience, the predictable moral message suggests kids are increasingly unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality or to see that their actions have real-life consequences.
The characters in Nerve don't see other people as real men and women, but as avatars in a virtual world whom they can abuse at will. They labor under the delusion that pain, shame, and guilt can just be erased by a reset button.
The problem is, Nerve tries to have it both ways - condemning these attitudes even as it celebrates and glorifies them.
Nerve **1/2 (Out of four stars)
yDirected by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. With Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer. Distributed by Lionsgate.
yRunning time: 1 hour, 36 mins.
yParent's guide: PG-13 (dangerous and risky behavior, sexual content, profanity, drugs, drinking and nudity - all involving teens).
yPlaying at: Area theaters.