Quick question. What are five stereotypes about teenagers that come to mind? Teenagers are disrespectful. Teenagers are self-serving. They think they know everything. They are too susceptible to peer pressure. Teenagers are fickle. Negative these descriptors are, sure, but not too far removed from reality. A more positive spin would hail adolescents as bold, self-preserving, confident, excessively considerate of others’ opinions, and highly adaptable. Combining both the cynical and optimistic isn’t always ideal when presenting a story on the teenage experience, but Adam Salky’s film “Dare” (2009), adapted from a short film that he and writer David Brind made in 2005, finds its thematic and artistic strength in making such a blend.
Alexa (Emmy Rossum), Ben (Ashley Springer), and Johnny (Zach Gilford) are running the last legs of their high school existence and drama club is at the center of it. Ben, Alexa’s best friend, and Johnny, the school’s most popular male specimen, see it more as a time-filler. For Alexa, though, it’s the first step to what she hopes one day will be an illustrious acting career. A mighty dose of reality comes in the form of Grant Matson (Alan C*****g), whose exquisitely brutal honesty spurs the wannabe thespian to realize that great acting is about feeling not line memorization. Like an overnight sensation, Alexa repackages herself and ascends the social ladder by getting to know Johnny in ways that toy with the art-life divide (is their chemistry real or is it a by-product of drama class?). Ben, too, gets raked up into these nascent desires and eventually searches for a more authentic identity.
Each member of this trio of characters occupies a specific arc of the narrative. Their mannerisms and preoccupations are introduced and followed more closely. Although it is hard at first to believe that Alexa and Johnny could change so much, the former shifting from introverted nerd to extroverted, sexy nerd and the latter from Mr. Heterosexual Cool to Mr. Polyamorous Too Cool for Cool. Have they really changed or is the film exploring the lengths that the characters will go to in order to keep their ego intact? Considering the whole of Alexa’s experiences, her updated wardrobe and broadened behavioral range are more to prove naysayers wrong than they are an effort to excavate some section of her self that she previously did not know could exist.
What might otherwise be an exercise in ordinary adolescent stories turns powerfully intimate through the wonderful performances that Salky coaxes out from the cast.