There's a line between enjoyably stupid and stupid-stupid, and "Nerve" sails over it right around the halfway mark. You might be scoffing from the get-go, as this slick thriller-lite (based on a young adult novel by Jeanne Ryan) portrays a New York City peopled almost exclusively by teenagers obsessed with the smartphone game of the title. Anyway, you might have been scoffing last month, before Pokemon Go ate its way into the craniums and data usage of everyone you know under 30.
But for about 45 minutes, the movie's engrossing fluff, a stylish cautionary cyber-tale aimed primarily at teenage girls. The heroine, Venus (Emma Roberts), is a shy high schooler taunted one time too many by her brassy best friend, Sydney (Emily Meade). The latter is an adept of the online game "Nerve," which rewards successful real-world dares with digital fame and downloads of cash.
There are Watchers and there are Players, and when Venus signs up and dares herself to dare, "Nerve" takes off on one long night of adventure that slowly and steadily turns ridiculous, culminating in what appears to be a night-time Hunger Games finale as staged on Staten Island.
There's a sigh-guy, obviously, a veteran "Nerve" player named Ian (Dave Franco), who's got a bit of a baby Brando thing going on. The game teams him up with Venus for dares that start small (kiss a stranger for five seconds), get bigger (run through Bergdorf Goodman in your underwear), and ultimately become dangerous (ride a motorcycle blindfolded down Park Avenue at 60 miles per hour) before taking a turn for the cataclysmic. The producers had better pray no idiots in the audience decide to imitate the stunts shown here. At the very least, they'd better have good lawyers.
The directors are Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who created "Catfish" (both the 2010 movie and its MTV spin-off) and directed a couple of "Paranormal Activities" installments. They know their young target audience well, and "Nerve" has been directed as a moody, broody, candy-colored night on the town as experienced through a teenager's social media. None of the characters are without a smartphone camera that's constantly recording and the screen is filled with texts, alerts, video chats, and so forth. Every so often, "Nerve" pulls back to a Manhattan skyline filled with the DayGlo tags of thousands of online players. It's enough to give any reasonable adult a grand mal seizure, and that includes Juliette Lewis, cruelly wasted as Venus's clueless nurse mom.
Still, the movie's fast, silly, and fun for a while, and it touches on real anxieties of watching versus doing; like a lot of movies aimed at the digital generations, it's a fantasy of mattering. You don't even mind that Roberts (who's 25) and Franco (who's 31) are much too old for their roles. Plus, it's nice to see Samira Wiley — Poussey of "Orange Is the New Black" — show up like a visitor from Planet Grown-Up as a hacker queen.
"Nerve" only loses its nerve when the technology needed to drive the plot becomes magical instead of possible, when the jargon gets dopey ("the BotNet can outvote everybody!"), and when an essentially tiny story of a girl overcoming her fears and meeting a cute guy is blown up to apocalyptic proportions. It's as if a paperback young-adult romance had been crossed with "Escape From New York." Actually, some of us would like to see that movie rather than this one.
Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Written by Jessica Sharzer, based on a novel by Jeanne Ryan. Starring Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 96 minutes. PG-13 (dangerous and risky behavior, some sexual content, language, drug content and nudity -- just another day in teenage America).