"Dare" reaches above the usual high school drama

Sun Feb 1, 2009 7:29pm EST
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By James Greenberg

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - High school movies never get old for filmmakers because emotions run so high and life issues are so intense at that time in life. "Dare," a smart and well-observed entry in the genre, is a cut above the usual hijinks. The universality of the story could lead to satisfying returns at the box office and make it a staple on cable outlets.

What elevates Sundance festival entry "Dare" above the usual high school fare is the quality of the writing by David Brind, crisp direction by Adam Salky and a uniformly attractive and compelling cast led by the delightful Emmy Rossum. The story is divided into three parts and revolves around the interconnected lives of a trio of seniors from an upper-middle-class Philadelphia suburb who are trying to figure out their next move.

Alexa (Rossum) is a somewhat sheltered late bloomer who dreams of a career on the stage but doesn't have the life experience to understand her lines, particularly as Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire." In fact, she's still a virgin.

Her best friend is the semi-nerd Ben (Ashley Springer), a likable guy with no standing whatsoever in the school's pecking order. And as far as his sexuality goes, he doesn't have any yet.

The last part of the triangle is school rebel Johnny (Zach Gilford), who sulks around like any angry young man should. He's Alexa's acting partner. Initially, not only is there no chemistry between them, but they don't even like each other.

The film really comes to life when successful acting alum Grant Matson (Alan Cumming) shows up for a rehearsal and Alexa presses him for his opinion. Asking if she wants "life lessons or a teen acting class," he tells her she lacks experience and conviction. And making matters even worse, he is impressed with Johnny's raw talent. That's not exactly what an insecure teen wants to hear, and it turns her world upside down. Cumming is so good prancing around the stage in his one scene that his presence immediately raises the film's stakes.

This changes everything for Alexa. Consulting with her cool friend Courtney (Rooney Mara), she remakes herself as a free-spirited risk-taker, a role that throws her right into Johnny's arms. Meanwhile, Ben is trying find out which way he goes and winds up in the same place as Alexa.

For Johnny, who is the most seriously troubled of the kids, this is too much to handle, and after some mandatory partying, he checks out on both of them. Gilford brings a rough-edged charm to the part before Johnny becomes too domesticated. As is often the case in films involving transformation, these characters change too quickly and too easily from one day to the next. If the acting weren't so good, it would be hard to go along with it. And the resolution of Brind's script is also a bit abrupt and dissatisfying.

But propelled by a likable cast, imaginative cinematography by Michael Fimognari and mostly believable situations, the film is likely to resonate for anyone who was ever a teenager.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter