'Dare'

More scandalous than 'High School Musical,' but not necessarily more authentic.

Essentially the anti-“High School Musical,” “Dare” rejects the notion of senior year as a time when greeting-card emotions come true, portraying it instead as a randy petri dish for sexual experimentation. Focusing on three drama students who do a bit too much extracurricular bonding, this “Cruel Intentions”-style cesspool of teenage hanky-panky may be more scandalous than its chaste Disney counterpart, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any more authentic. Expanded from director Adam Salky’s gay sexual-awakening short of the same name, “Dare” looks positioned for a similar fate: a healthy festival life followed by limited commercial exposure.

In keeping with its title, “Dare” encourages viewers to reach beyond their comfort zone and experience life, but it interprets that challenge in purely sexual terms. Screenwriter David Brind divides the film into three sections, each one concentrating on a different member of the school’s drama class.

First up, Alexa Walker (“The Phantom of the Opera’s” Emmy Rossum) is the goody-goody type, succeeding at everything she tries. Her spirits are crushed when a special guest (Alan Cumming, playing a local actor) critiques her performance in the school play. “Do something you’re afraid of and fail,” he advises, which inspires her to seduce the class bad boy, Johnny Drake (“Friday Night Lights” jock Zach Gilford), unlocking the sizzle that was missing from their performance of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Alexa’s story could work as a stand-alone short, but the pic complicates things with the next segment, focusing on her best friend Ben (Ashley Springer). The drama class’ “light boy,” Ben is too shy to go onstage, but seizes his opportunity when he and Johnny are drinking champagne beside Johnny’s pool. “I had my first kiss tonight,” he later tells Alexa. “I also gave my first blow job.”

In the final chapter, “Dare” tries to imagine the inner life of the school stud. As if exacting their revenge on the cool kids from their own adolescence, Salky and Brind paint Johnny as insecure and vulnerable. After objectifying him for most of the movie, “Dare” shows the climactic threesome through Johnny’s uncomfortable eyes.

Pic’s unusual structure has an unfortunate side effect in that the characters cease to develop after their segments end, so auds get an incredibly complex sense of Johnny’s character, while Alexa and Ben seem underwritten. Switching his shooting style with each segment, Salky abandons the bright, conventional style of Alexa’s overlong portion for longer takes and artier framing when Ben takes over, before finally going handheld and draining much of the color for the Johnny section.

Though minor arcs play out in each piece, “Dare” lacks an overarching narrative to propel the entire film, so overall pacing feels uneven and long at just 90 minutes.

Dare

Production

A Next Wednesday/Gigantic Pictures production. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York.) Produced by Mary Jane Skalski, Jason Orans. Co-producer, David Brind. Directed by Adam Salky. Screenplay, David Brind.

Crew

Camera (color), Michael Fimognari; editor, John F. Lyons; music, Duncan Sheik, David Poe; music supervisor, Dave Golden; art director, Michael David Crenshaw; sound (Dolby), Philip Rosati; associate producers, Adam Spielberg, Marco Henry; assistant director, Yann Sobezynski; casting, Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 19, 2009. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Emmy Rossum, Zach Gilford, Ashley Springer, Ana Gasteyer, Rooney Mara, Sandra Bernhard, Alan Cumming.

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