Dawn is a short film directed by Rose McGowan that debuted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The film was written by M.A Fortin and Joshua John Miller and stars Tara Lynne Barr as the title character.
Dawn, a sheltered 1960s teen, meets a handsome and mysterious football player at the local gas station. Her overprotective mother warns her against seeing him again, noting the salacious way Dawn looked at him, but Dawn disregards this warning; she decides to have her crush and two other popular teens over to her house to listen to records – which seems innocent enough. Things seem strange when the other teens arrive sans records, drinking and smoking, but Dawn, ignoring her instinct, pushes past her hesitation in an effort to seem easy going. After all, boys like a girl who’s “open to adventure and doesn’t get sore when plans change.” Dawn agrees to go to the movies with the other teens – and needless to say, things quickly go south when she gets in the car and their plans change from an innocent night at the movies to an impromptu trip to the woods…. What she thought would be a fun first date with a sweet boy turns to a cautionary tale.
The film is stunning – McGowan’s color palette, which draws from other films about the era like the Nancy Meyer’s The Parent Trap and films by Stanley Kubrick, is warm and sunny and in direct contrast to the dark subject matter. The world of Dawn is much like our title character’s personal world; it’s perfectly manicured and cultivated and that’s what makes the sinister turn of events all the more shocking.
Dawn is an easy commentary on femininity and the patriarchy – specifically in regards to gender roles. Dawn is encouraged to be demure, to be curious, but not ask too many questions; her mother speaks ill of women who seem loose – who dress too provocatively, who are too proud, who don’t understand that there are “certain things you have to do to keep a man.” She encourages Dawn to be cognizant of what men like and Dawn reads all about “What Boys Look for in a Date” in Tattler magazine; for the second time, she’d directed on what women must do to please a man. This ultimately is Dawn’s downfall. She doesn’t understand the world, she’s been shamed for her feelings and encouraged not to seem too distrustful, so she misses signs that Franklin doesn’t have her best interest at heart. He easily manipulates her by seeming sensitive to her troubles at home, the fact that her father doesn’t listen to her and her mother treats her unkindly…. And even after he’s proven that he’s not afraid to hurt her, it doesn’t take much to coax her into following him… her demise is in her desire to seem easy-going, to be submissive. Her desire to be what a woman ought to be is what gets her in trouble.
Even more problematic is the character Mary French, who is a woman unwilling to question the dangers of the patriarchy for her own gain. She goes along with Franklin and Charlie’s plan to trap dawn – she innocently introduces Dawn to Franklin, lies about having new records so that they can get into her home, and finally, encourages her to “just do what he says, Hon,” when Dawn, trapped in the woods with these untrustworthy teens, finally afraid, pleads that she wants to go home – and all for the sake of getting a new dress. Mary French is indicative of the woman of today who slut-shames, who questions why women do not report assault, who claims that women should be flattered by catcalling and other forms of street harassment; she’s the girl who hates other women, who “isn’t like other girls.”
Yet, Dawn stands out as particularly pertinent for the times not just in subject matter, but in who directed the film. McGowan is known for her acting credits (Once Upon a Time, Law and Order: SVU) but even more notable, she is the leading accuser in Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual harassment and assault case. In October of 2017, McGowan urged men and women to speak up against harassment and assault and has accused several Hollywood A-Listers of knowing all about the alleged harassment going on. She easily shapes Dawn to be a cautionary tale about trusting your intuition, but also a testament about hindsight. McGowan takes viewers into the mindset of a victim – you can’t blame Dawn for falling for Franklin because he seems charming and genuine, and with Mary French on his side and Charlie as a direct representative of everything that a bad boy ought to be as his juxtaposition, it’s easy to see why Dawn is manipulated by him in the end. With his John Wayne good looks, his charm, and his status as a popular football player, he seems like a sweet guy. And that’s the most important statement that Dawn makes: there is no set look for a criminal or a rapist or an abuser… they look just like you and me and often are hiding in plain sight.