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So there's this actor named Zach Gilford, and he's, um, really good. I've long praised his talent (along with the rest of the cast) when discussing the TV series Friday Night Lights, and with the Emmy nominations nearing there's "buzz" that Gilford is not only a potential nominee but also a potential winner for his "guest" spot on the show's fourth season (where he technically isn't a regular anymore). I'm not quite sure why Emmy voters have ignored this incredible series for so long, and while I'm excited that it may finally get its due, I'm scratching my head that it may come in such an obscure category.
But I digress. Back at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, this little indie created a little buzz of its own, followed by a few more festival showings and a very limited theatrical run. I'm surprised it didn't get a wider release, at least on a premium cable station: The cast includes some talented up-and-comers and some established veterans, and it's bolstered by Gilford's performance as bad boy Johnny Drake--sort of the anti-Matt Saracen. He plays the catalyst in a high school drama that--like so many others--shows us that the kids truly aren't alright. We've seen many incarnations of this before, and Dare feels like a blend of The Breakfast Club, Heathers, Cruel Intentions and Threesome as it uncovers the tortured lives of some students discovering themselves and their sexuality.
The film has three central characters, and while the story is linear it shifts perspectives among the trio--shedding new light on both the students' and the filmmakers' intent in the process. Emmy Rossum (who hasn't done much in film since her showcase roles in The Phantom of the Opera, Poseidon and The Day After Tomorrow) is straight-laced Alexa Walker, a go-getting yet slightly uptight star pupil (think Tracy Flick's more palatable cousin) who gets her fair share of teasing from the cooler kids at school. They think she's riding the popularity coattails of hipper pal Courtney (Rooney Mara of the recent A Nightmare on Elm Street remake, effective in a small role). Alexa dreams of being an actress--but gets frustrated when classmate Johnny can't remember his lines (they're doing a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, one of many telling parallels injected by the writer).
Meanwhile, life-long friend Ben Berger (Ashley Springer of Teeth) is the quiet and shy crew member who works the lights for the drama club. He has his fair share of teasers, too--although the friendship with Alexa has always been his rock. But high school heck soon breaks loose after Alexa's acting ability gets reamed by an egocentric actor/prick (Alan Cumming) who basically tells her she'll never work in this town: "You shouldn't be playing Blanche DuBois, honey...you're a child." With her dream shattered, Alexa sets out to truly live and take chances in life--which includes acting upon her feelings for Johnny (an attraction that is made apparent from the beginning). Cussing, drinking and sexing it up, she's now a woman transformed--and her new infatuation doesn't sit so well with envious Ben (who we soon learn isn't jealous of Johnny).
Halfway through comes the film's inciting incident--a poolside encounter that sends Dare into new territory. And just when we think we know where things are going, the final section brings us closer to Johnny and complicates things even more. But that's a good thing, because the film asks you to buy some pretty unbelievable developments that are easier to swallow once Gilford gets to work his magic in the final act (his scene with a therapist--played by a pleasantly subdued Saundra Bernhard--is one of the film's best moments, while an interesting bond with Ben's mother--played by SNL vet Ana Gasteyer--offers another subplot I wish we saw more of). Despite the film's salacious subplots, its true aim is to rip the bandage off teenage angst--and let us watch as these teenagers stumble into adulthood with some pretty bad decisions (hey, we've all been there, right?).
Dare is pretty deceptive, but you don't realize it until late in the game. And that brings me to the ending. To be honest, I wasn't enjoying a lot of what the film was feeding me--and I thought it was being pretty disrespectful to a few characters. I even groaned as we faded to black near the end, figuring the upcoming epilogue had no shot of redeeming what I thought was a terrible, impossible-to-believe scene. Boy was I wrong--the final sequence and last line may seem slight, but they provided a perfect punch line that had me looking at the film in a whole new light. Maybe I was just stupid for not seeing it sooner, but I bought into the conventional storytelling I thought I was watching.
But who said director Adam Salky and writer David Brind had to play by the rules? (Both worked on the 2005 short film of the same name--presented here in the bonus features, which I recommend you watch; it inspired this feature.) I suddenly felt stupid, cheap and violated...and I loved it. It's not like there's any stunning twist, just a little wink that proves this film was a lot darker than I gave it credit for. I thought I knew who Dare belonged to, but I was wrong--and I now have an urge to pop the disc back in and watch it again.
The cool ending doesn't forgive all of the film's flaws, but it comes close. Dare doesn't quite flow as well as it could, and (like the people it chronicles) it sometimes feels a little young and inexperienced. In each of the film's three main segments, the two characters that aren't being spotlighted come across a little too two-dimensional. The film also has an odd blend of tones and (perhaps fittingly, like at least one character) comes across a little schizophrenic. Is this supposed to be a heartfelt drama or a wicked game? Are these people deep or diabolical? Dare doesn't completely run with either option, so we're left with a confused middle ground that makes it hard to get comfortable. But in an odd way, that might be part of the film's strength.
You have to buy the sudden changes that the trio goes through, their surprising behavior each prompted by words from a periphery character. Whether it's a rude actor, a mother or a therapist, the three kids are drawn into action by unintended dares (oh, now I get it!) from those around them: "Things can get confusing when you're trying to get on the same page as the people you care about." It results in three "movie moments" where the film shuns realism. I wasn't fully on board for two of those transformations, but the third one--and the final scene, which made the filmmakers' intent a lot clearer--had me singing a different tune.
This is the kind of film you could love or hate. But even without the saucy material, Salky, Brind and the cast have succeeded in crafting some memorable scenes that speak the truth about those formidable years. There's honesty and humor in the emotions and interactions here (the cast hits some really believable notes with their friendships), and even if they don't all perfectly connect into one fluid piece, they're powerful enough on their own. Regardless of what you think about the ending or the film as a whole, those little moments (like the opening scene with Alexa smiling after misinterpreting her doctor's words) easily prevent this from being a wasted watch. And if, like me, you are fully on board after the end, you'll be very pleasantly surprised. Dare has a lot going for it, and I can't recall a film that unfolded like this one--it makes you think and rethink things. It's a unique experience, and for that I'll gladly forgive its growing pains.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer isn't anything to get excited about. While it didn't ruin my enjoyment of the film, it's just an average effort. Detail and sharpness are lacking, and the colors aren't as striking as they could be (the filmmakers clearly opt for some dull and lifeless palates in certain scenes, but a few sequences that opt for bolder colors aren't as arresting as they could be). There's plenty of grain, and even a little ghosting (watch for that coffee mug shot around the 35-minute mark...boo!).
The 5.1 track is also just average; no major problems, but the balance doesn't seem to be as effective as it could be in a few group scenes (which don't quite have the perfect levels and focal points with the speakers). Subtitles come in English and Spanish.
The highlight of the extras is the 2005 short film Dare (15:23), also directed by Adam Salky and written by David Brind. It's a pretty powerful work on its own, and fascinating in that it transforms the feature's least impactful lead (Ben) and makes him the focal point. No offense to Ashley Springer, but I kind of wish Adam Fleming was also cast in the 2009 update (he does get a cameo as a teacher). He does a phenomenal job in the short of conveying a wide range of emotions with minimal time and words. The short focuses on the pool scene with Johnny (played here by Michael Cassidy); it's a sexually charged effort that offers a different ending than the film (and a complicated one that didn't go where I thought it was going to, which was refreshing).
A feature-length audio commentary with Salky and Brind (who has a small role as a student) is a great listen that really enhances the film. Both care deeply about every little detail; it's clear it was a labor of love. In addition to some interesting tidbits (there were two scenes where an extra had a seizure; and watch for both of their parents!) and technical talk about shots and visual schemes, they share how they perceive the film--as well as the evolution of the story and its characters. Gilford was a late addition who "altered the movie in the best ways possible," notes Salky. Perhaps most interesting are the discussions about the difficult challenge of taking the short film and making it something bigger and different (although I wish they delved more into the short, or at least had a separate commentary for it); and about the pivotal final scenes (including how they changed from script to screen), where they offer some excellent interpretations.
Also fascinating is the Emmy Rossum audition footage (9:57), primarily because it includes some dialogue removed from the film--interesting omissions from some crucial scenes that would have made some motives a little clearer (I remember thinking during the film, "I wonder what they're saying to each other..." Here, we get the answer--although it works better with the ambiguity). Three scenes are represented; listen carefully in a few spots during the final one, which represents the last scene with the three main characters together.
Two deleted scenes (with optional commentary, including Brind asking for his innocent yet unimportant comments to be removed from one of them...whoops!) don't offer much, although one ("A Tense Threesome", :58) features a nice shot and moment with all three main characters. The other, entitled "Alexa Relaxes" (1:41) should actually be called "Alexa 'Relaxes'" (wink wink) and features Brind offering a comment that made me laugh (and gave me an appreciation for Rossum's performance): "I think I wrote here, 'Alexa looks like she's trying to find the combination to a safe.'" The audio commentary had me wondering if more deleted footage possibly existed.
The film's trailer rounds out the package.
Adolescence can be a bitch. Three confused teens take center stage as they struggle to find themselves in Dare--where their growing pains quickly prove to be a complicated, often uncomfortable experience. Made by some green filmmakers, it's sometimes a little rough (perhaps appropriately, like its characters). But by the time the sexually charged Dare reaches it's highly satisfying conclusion--one that had me looking at the film in a whole new light and turning my middling thumb all the way up--you suspect that might have been intentional. The film has a few tricks up its sleeve, and I was pleasantly surprised at the unique, thought-provoking experience it turned into. Throw in some honest humor and emotion--including a great turn from Zach Gilford--and the film still satisfies regardless of your take on the work as a whole. Recommended.