In "Nerve," a dark-heart-of-the-Internet thriller made with a glib pop-up glow, Vee (Emma Roberts), a high school senior in Staten Island who's the straightest girl in her clique (though she's cool enough to know her Wu-Tang by heart), gets sucked up into a sinister competition that emerges out of the deep web. It's a game called Nerve that operates through a smartphone app – though it could just as well have been devised by a savvy TV producer who loved "Fear Factor" and "The Hunger Games" and ordered up a show that was a cross between them.
In the movie, anyone who makes the perilous click to play Nerve chooses to be in one of two groups: players or watchers. The players are the bold ones who act out a series of dares, which start off as innocuous (jumping onto a motorcycle with a leader-of-the-pack stranger) and then head toward the shiveringly dangerous (don't-look-down heights are a favorite motif). The players receive money for each dare, but more than that, they rack up followers. They get to know that they're loved! The watchers, by contrast, are the passive drone/fans sitting on the sidelines. But they're also the ones controlling the whole thing. They think up the dares and become a live audience for them on their phones and computers, choosing to follow this or that player. Are we not entertained?
At "Nerve," we are entertained (sort of), by a concoction that's basically a B-movie scavenger hunt with a soupcon of "relevance." It's like an update of the 1997 David Fincher thriller "The Game," only with an ominous hint of this is where the world is heading that feels more like "The Purge." "Nerve," let's be clear, isn't a movie to take seriously, yet its fast lunge at topicality – the way it uses the contest at its center as a lightning-rod metaphor for how young adults interact in the digital age – is part of what's fun about it. The film was co-directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who made the highly resonant and manipulative 2010 documentary "Catfish" (about the way that people use fake alter egos on-line). "Nerve," which is both thin and exciting, contrived and provocative, is staged as a chain of logistical observations about on-line culture in the age of Snapchat and Instagram, when people put their whole lives on display, and what isn't shown is being data-minded. The movie is cautionary sociology turned into an ominously propulsive youth-movie ride.
Emma Roberts, with her big dark eyes and toothpaste-commercial smile, is often compared to her movie-star aunt (Julia Roberts), but in "Nerve," she's got a chatty awareness that makes her seem more like the little sister of Anne Hathaway. As a lead actress, she's vividly compelling: vivacious and a little abashed, an oasis of radiant sanity within a group of kids who are all twitchy nerve endings. The film opens with an ingenious sequence in which Vee, on her laptap, connects with her wild-girl best friend, Syd (Emily Meade), amid a sea of on-line bells and whistles. It's really the film's announcement of its theme, which is that in the digital age, "one-on-one" communication is just another piece of entertainment, another virtual stimulant. No wonder things need to get daring.
The movie captures how in an all-computer-all-the-time era, it's inevitable – indeed, almost evolutionary – that people will be driven to seek out some way to be audaciously physical, to be out in the world and there. The players act out the hidden desires of the watchers: a symbiosis of thrill-seeking at once real and vicarious. But Vee, a photographer who just wants her mom (Juliette Lewis) to allow her to attend the California Institute of the Arts, has more romantic inclinations. She's got a secret crush on J.P (Brian Marc), a star jock, and when the anything-goes Syd approaches him in front of a crowd on her friend's behalf, the result of this badly misjudged transaction sends Vee into a spiral of humiliation.
How bad a spiral? So bad that she enters a "What the hell" zone that suddenly leads her to sign up on Nerve as a player. It's not really too plausible – but hey, it's the movie's whole premise, so why fight it? Vee's first official dare is to visit a diner and kiss a stranger for five seconds, and once she gets there she sets her sights on Ian (Dave Franco), whose face is buried behind a paperback copy of "To the Lighthouse." That turns out to be no coincidence. On Facebook, Vee had listed Virginia Woolf's novel as her all-time favorite. The game is already parsing her tastes! Reading her mind! The follow-up dare involves her pairing off with Ian, who choppers her into Manhattan, where the two stop off at Bergdorf Goodman and – next dare – she tries on a skimpy couture dress that looks like it was made out of a crushed emerald-green Christmas ornament. From there things just get sketchier.
That's just where we want them to go. "Nerve" takes a moment to recover from a flagrantly preposterous sequence in which Ian, on his motorcycle (with Vee as designated driver), tries to hit a speed of 60 miles per hour in Manhattan while blindfolded. Dave Franco, with a buzzcut that brings his features into focus, comes off as a less moonstruck, more vulnerable version of his brother James. He and Roberts find a romantic connection that threads itself through the movie, and stays there even when Vee is walking on a ladder lodged between apartment windows twelve stories above ground. Joost and Schulman do a terrific job of staging this vertiginous sequence. It works as the ultimate bad dream of peer pressure – the notion that this is how far someone will go to please her followers. In "Nerve," the rule of the Internet mob is all-powerful: You want something because everyone else wants it, and their will becomes yours, a dynamic that can leave your very identity hanging in the air.
The cinematography, by Mike Simmonds, is sharply angled and glowing, with a touch of knowingly haphazard YouTube visual flash. But there's nothing too spontaneous about the conspiratorial doom that drives the action forward. As the game of Nerve goes on, the watchers egg on the players, who are all too eager to become stars, but they're really just sacrificial lambs. At certain points, watchers will conveniently pop up along the streets, strategically placed there to broadcast what's happening through their phones and action cameras, an image of all-eyes-on-you paranoia that may produce a shrug of "Yeah, right." "Nerve" is a comic-book vision of how the Internet has become a gladiatorial arena of voyeurism. But the movie, like the game it's about, is hard to stop watching, even when you know it's playing you.