Dare (2009)

Perhaps by virtue simply of its title, Dare had to be something different. You can’t name your film “Dare” and then have it not take chances, and this film certainly doesn’t play it safe. This is a risky project, taking the generic teen coming-of-age/romance story and doing something different with it. In this case, that means creating three interesting characters, putting them in an odd situation, and seeing how they grow from it — if they grow at all.

There are three lead characters, all very different, and all getting their turn in the sun. The plot is linear but the perspective is changed at each third that is reached. We begin with one character as the protagonist, but once he or she gets about 30 minutes, we change perspective to one of the others. I suppose the most logical way would be to describe the characters in order of their chance to be the story’s focus.

First up is Alexa (Emmy Rossum), a good girl who gets told she can’t be an actress because she hasn’t experienced anything negative in her life. Second is Ben (Ashley Springer), an outsider who is friends with nobody but Alexa and may or may not be a closeted homosexual. Finally, there’s Johnny (Zach Gilford), a seemingly typical popular jock, but with more hidden feelings than anyone else in the film. The relationship that develops between these three is at once surprisingly complex and devastating. By the time Dare ends, you’re unlikely to be quite sure of what you watched, but you will know it was a different take on this subject matter.

Part of Dare‘s power comes from the way it manages to craft out these characters and their motivations. How much of what they’re doing is because of genuine affection for the other characters? How much is done in hopes of selfishly becoming someone else? Does one’s identity — both sexual and non-sexual — get lost in this sort of quest? What even is one’s identity? You ponder these things as the film plays and while you might not always get straight answers, the questions will be raised and you’ll be thinking. When is the last time you saw a teen movie that made you think?

Dare has been directed by Adam Salky and written by David Brind, and it’s based on a short film they released four years earlier of the same name. Together, they have created a fascinating film. Sure, the fact that it explores topics that are actually important to teens — and adults, for that matter — is important, but it’s also just an entertaining film. It’s never dull, in part because of the perspective changes which allow for moments of revelation and further intrigue.

I feel as though parts of Dare were missing or trimmed for running time efficiency. A couple of character transformations happened too quickly to be believable. Alexa’s initial change near the beginning — prompted by a discussion with Alan Cumming in a cameo role playing a theatrical actor — is almost instantaneous, and it would have been nice to see her struggle to adapt a persona she never previously had. Likewise, after Ben’s “coming out” scene, he seems perfectly comfortable as an openly gay man. It’s all too quick to be truly realistic.

Without wanting to ruin where the film eventually takes the relationship of these three characters — and it likely doesn’t go where you think it will — I’ll say only that while I watched it I felt as if this wouldn’t be able to happen, but after reflecting on it later it made perfect sense given the characters and their personalities. Implausibility becomes possible or even likely if the characters are developed well enough for you to understand where they’re coming from. That’s where Dare shines.

You might have motivational confusion while it plays, but that will be rectified after it ends. You’ll have learned things you didn’t previously know and it will (mostly) make sense. Some confusion and ambiguity might still exist, but then you’ll just have to think about the characters then, won’t you? And aren’t teenagers confused a great deal of the time, too? I’d wager that feeling rubbing off on the audience isn’t a coincidence.

When Dare does start to go off-track, at least two of the actors keep it easily watchable. Buying in whole-heartedly to its premise are Zach Gilford and Emmy Rossum. The subtle transformations they have to show as the film progresses, along with a surprising emotional depth from each of them, are top-notch. And that’s not to take anything away from Ashley Springer — he’s just not quite on the same level. Supporting roles go to Ana Gasteyer and Rooney Mara, while cameos are given to Sandra Bernhard and the aforementioned Alan Cumming.

Dare is a fascinating movie which will raise many questions, some of which it won’t — and doesn’t need to — answer. Its plot is told in an interesting and subversive manner, its characters are well-defined and develop strongly over its duration, and its actors are committed to the idea the filmmakers want to convey. I wanted more, and that’s almost always a good sign. It doesn’t play things safe, and that works to its advantage. More movies should follow that lead.

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