Watch "Dare" - I Dare You

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Based on a short film and featuring some of the same original cast, "Dare" centers on one of those twisted high-school sexual messes, but manages to stave off the to-be-expected nosedive into both unchecked perversity and sheer fluff. And it sidesteps both thanks to some poignant acting by Zach Gilford, Ashley Springer and Emmy Rossum, who form an unlikely trio by linking limbs and giving in to their personal brand of screwed-up mojo. It is a lot to take in for the lily-livered, but even the threesome heavy petting succeeds in catching itself before crossing over into unnecessary lewdness. So prudes are advised to proceed at their own peril, but proceed they should!

This is the story of three high school seniors: aspiring actress Alexa (Rossum), her gay childhood friend Ben (Springer) and the school's disaffected bad boy, Johnny (Gilford). The starting point, where their lives tear away at a tangent so far off the beaten track that you'll drop your fork while watching, is an accomplished actor's take on Alexa's Blanche, of "A Streetcar Named Desire," which, he makes all too clear, requires real-life warts-and-all experience to pull off. Experience that Alexa, brindes promocional your typical goody-two-shoes class virgin, has been neglecting for the better part of her life. All that is about to change, though, as she grittily embarks on a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am type of journey, awakens her sexuality and consequently delivers a stellar performance come opening night.

However, we quickly realize the school play was little more than an excuse employed by screenwriter David Brind, a transparent ploy at that but well-played by Alan Cumming's former graduate "who made it" treading the boards, all to get Alexa's legs parted and herself well on her way towards the pleasure-driven hijinks that the movie's aching to show us. Far be it from me to complain about kinky three-way action as a means to a greater end, which in this case is all about the love grail, acceptance and friendship - however it does seem a bit like Alexa was forced to stumble upon the part of a seductress rather than being left to come into her sultrier nature at her own pace.

Director Adam Salky chose to aptly and markedly segment the movie along the lines of each character's personal development, ending each of the three resulting fragments on a high note as all three leads arrive at some sort of fulfilment - that said, the mercurial Johnny is at the forefront, if for no other reason than his issues springing from a darker place than the others' and taking longer to manifest themselves, let alone arrive at a passable semblance of a resolution. In Gilford's capable hands - which I, for one, wouldn't have pegged as quite so shifty after seeing his turn as Matt in "Friday Night Lights" - Johnny becomes a touching portrayal of a neglected teenager's yearning for admission into a loving relationship.

The way Johnny goes about finding that sort of connection is by hijacking already welded groups, i.e. what he perceives as Ben's close-knit family, Alexa included. His is a dense character, complete with scarring left over by an absentee parent (make that two, in effect) and head-shrinkage to cover it all up. So when he lets himself bask in the glimmer of hope that his new friends might whisk him away, at first just figuratively, from all the heartache, instead of daring to see the whole picture as is, he grabs the dream with both hands. The whole picture being, of course, that, just as the appeal of his cool-as-a-cucumber rough-cut manner had reeled in his new friends, any departure from it might alienate them.

That's not to say either Alexa or Ben are shallow creatures, but they are indeed young hormonal high-schoolers, far from equipped to deal with the kind of problems Johnny brings to the table. What I most enjoyed about "Dare" was just that: you go into it empathizing with the nerd and the loser, but the similarities with staple indie high-school movies end halfway through this one, as your attention veers off the put-upon kids to land firmly on "Mr. Popularity." The bully versus victim cliché is turned on its head, with Johnny revealing himself just as, if not more, entitled to the part of the victim than the "usual suspects."

Emmy Rossum and Ahsley Springer deliver admirably though, playing the in-over-their-heads teens with enough layering so as not to have their characters fade out anticlimactically as two-dimensional thrill-seekers. Rossum's acting is impeccable as she sensitively unpeels the rigid overachiever's facade to first show and then proactively go after what she wants. As both her and Springer press on in their new-fangled self-credentialed roles, AKA Johnny's lovers, it soon becomes obvious that they've taken on more than they can chew. There's a point in their rapidly unfurling relationship with him when they slip out of character and begin fighting over their guy of choice like infants pulling at a doll.

The tug of war was of course to be expected, ever since the well-meaning Johnny stood idly by (granted, not all that idly) while they put him in the flattering position of responding to their advances and thus becoming their, both of theirs, "first" sexual encounter. What the movie lacks in the area of plot development, however, it makes up for in the wildcard department - some scenes are soul-wrenchingly tender and come out of the blue too, while others (sadly, most) are just so bent on hitting us like a ton of bricks that they end up devaluing the blow that a more realistic approach might have dealt.