In the opening credits of Adam Salky’s swing-every-which-way high school dramedy Dare, a disembodied hand texts on a cellphone as rock music blares and alternating colors flash in the background, obviously establishing an oh-so-hip tone, and the only thing missing is a Winona Ryder voiceover. Taking place in a well-off Philadelphia suburb, the film chronicles the intersecting lives of three high school seniors—Alexa (Emmy Rossum), Ben (Ashley Springer), and Johnny (Zach Gilford)—as they deal with the raging hormones of teenage sexuality, and their fast-approaching graduation and, thus, adulthood.
The bookish brownnoser Alexa is hell-bent on nailing down her scene in drama class, despite the carefree attitude of her good-looking, popular acting partner Johnny. Soon, though, they become more than just scene partners after a made-up, vampy Alexa surprises Johnny at his house party, with Ben, Alexa’s nerdy, closet-case bestie, growing quietly envious of Alexa and Johnny’s newfound relationship. Ben happily discovers that Johnny plays for both teams after an awkward, eye-opening sexual encounter inside a pool, and as a result they, along with Alexa, cross into uncharted sexual territory, complicating their relationships with each other as the school year comes to a halt.
Dare is substandard fare by all accounts, plucking its characters from past (and better) teen-angst films: Alexa, for example, is a less ruthless version of Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick in Election. Also, in its attempt to capture our current stance of PC tolerance, the film depicts a sterile world where queer teenagers can make the most scandalous declarations without raising as much as an eyebrow from friends or family. In theory, it’s refreshing to see a character like Ben being fully embraced for who he is, but it makes for innocuous, and eventually less insightful, storytelling.
The writer and director deserve kudos for thoughtfully dissecting the narrative between the three characters as perspective uniquely changes throughout, exposing complex, if somewhat contrived, layers to the characters. (Is Johnny really that depressed?) But the film merely scratches the surface of the daily struggles and challenges of the socially handicapped teen, confusing sexual experimentation and fulfillment for actual character development. The lead triumvirate of Rossum, Springer, and Gilford perform adequately as angst-ridden teens, but their roles hardly make for a stretch. Ana Gasteyer, as Ben’s mother, truly surprises, bringing realistic depth to the aged-hippie archetype she’s given to play, but Sandra Bernhard is utterly wasted in a cut-for-time role as Johnny’s concerned therapist. The comedienne’s characteristic bite may be what’s ultimately missing from the lackluster film, which stumbles in its transparent, half-hearted attempt at achieving teen-cult status.