Illustration from Almas inquietas, a collection of short stories by Guillermo Jimenez, 1916
I was so sure that 500 Days of Summer was the worst thing I saw at Sundance. If that's true, though, why am I so disinclined to write anything about Dare, a movie that is ostensibly much less likely to cause the outright destruction of all mankind? I think it's because Dare evokes no strong feelings in me at all - it's just kind of there. I wasn't bored or distracted while watching it, and I enjoyed the question-and-answer period with the director and writer afterward, and then all memory of the film evaporated from my mind. That's something that happens to me a lot, but I don't think I'd experienced such a sudden mind-wipe since law school. In fact, it's hard to capture the real-time composition of this review, but I am only getting about five words at a time before I get distracted by something shiny on my desk or a noise in the hall.
The problem with Dare (or, more accurately, ONE of the problems with Dare) is that it's another movie about teen angst that makes no effort to be of any interest to actual teenagers. You'd think that maybe this would work to it's advantage, but I'd rather be watching Mean Girls, in all honesty, than some movie that is supposed to make twenty-somethings rub their chins and say, "Yes - being a teenager was JUST like that." Here's the setup: Alexa (from the movie adaptations of Phantom of the Opera and the forthcoming Dragonball Evolution) is a senior in high school who wants to be an actress. Basically, she's a good-girl drama-nerd whose social status is propped up by having a cool best friend Courtney (played well by Rooney Mara but underused). Her other friend is Ben (Ashley Springer), an AV-club nerd and obvious closet case that she's known since childhood.
Ben and Alexa are in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire (a purposefully odd choice for a high school play) with the reclusive Johnny Drake (Friday Night Lights' Zach Gilford), who has a reputation as a bad boy and throws rowdy parties at his mansion. Now is as good a time as any to mention that all the characters live in mansions, and their high school campus is, in at least in the outdoor scenes, Bryn Mawr, so this is definitely upper-class teen drama. When Grant Matson (Alan Cumming), a somewhat successful actor and alumnus of the school returns to meet with the Drama Club, Alexa asks for advice on becoming a successful actor. He just tells her that she's no good at all - she has no life experience and therefore has nothing to draw on in her acting. Alexa takes this advice to heart and decides to seduce Johnny as a way of improving her acting prowess. This sets off a chain of events that creates a tangled web of intimacy between Alexa, Ben, and Johnny. Several emo-riffic sequences lead up to a climax played for maximum awkwardness, followed by a very open-ended final scene set months later, showing how the three teens were affected by what they went through.
The leads in the film were all quite good - I admit to liking Rossum more than I expected to, and Zach Gilford was definitely right for the withdrawn, disconnected Johnny Drake. Solid performances from Cumming, Sandra Bernhard and Cady Huffman added a lot even though the adults in the movie get little screen time. Dare's considerable problems are mostly related to the mood and story - it's hard to muster much empathy for rich white teenagers who are still trying to figure out the basics of human sexuality in their final semester of high school. And the narrative structure, which dedicates a third of the movie to the point of view of each of the teens (Alexa, then Ben, then Johnny), dulls the impact of the story's big moments rather than sharpening it. And I think it's safe to say that the ending doesn't do what it needs to - I happen to know what the ending needs to do because Dare's screenwriter David Brind spent about five minutes trying to explain the final scene to us. He had a very specific idea of where Alexa, Ben, and Johnny end up, but it's just not communicated well. So, to me, Dare fails by being unmemorable. I may not be the movie's target audience, though, if it is really intended for older audiences because my high school experience was sorely lacking in spacious mansions, illicit sex acts, and Alan Cumming cameos.
"I Will Dare" by the Replacements