Writer/director, Abe Sylvia, pays homage to the films of John Hughes and countless other teen films from the 1980s with his debut feature, Dirty Girl. Although Sylvia was blessed with a great supporting cast, Dirty Girl would have been a complete flop if it weren’t for the star making turns by Juno Temple and newcomer, Jeremy Dozier. Like Hughes classic films, Sylvia takes an honest look at adolescence, warts and all, which means the characters speak like real teens (hence the ‘R’ rating) and are selfish, confused and somewhat fucked up. While the overall story has some holes and cliches, these problems are easy to overlook thanks to the bravado of Temple’s performance and the smile the movie plasters on your face with it’s message of tolerance and friendship.
Set in Oklahoma, 1987, the film opens with the pitch perfect harmonies of Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night.” Any movie that chooses to feature classic Benatar scores points, in my book. We quickly learn that Temple (speaking in a twangy accent) is Danielle, the high school slut. She starts her days banging dudes in their muscle cars before entering the school grounds sporting huge sunglasses and a cigarette poised between her lips. Danielle’s outrageous behavior gets her booted out of her regular classes and placed in “challengers,” the room in the basement where all the “troubled kids” wind up. Danielle is a smart girl and her principal challenges her to straighten up so she can return to the normal kids. “No one likes a dirty girl,” he tells her. No one likes a teenage boy whose openly gay, either; at least, not in the Reagan-era south. That’s why overweight, obviously gay, Clarke (Dozier) is also in the Challengers class.
Clarke and Danielle are immediately paired up in the old “bag of flour parenting experiment” and a friendship slowly begins to form. As we get to know Danielle better and we learn about the emptiness she has from never knowing her real father (she was born out of wedlock to a teenage mother ) and we start to understand why she swears, is abusive and sleeps around. Clarke takes Danielle’s abuse because he’s friendless and will do anything to get out is house. At home, his mousy mother (Mary Steenburgen) stands by while her foolish husband (Dwight Yokam) tries to beat the gay out of his son.
Danielle’s mom (Milla Jovovich) is planning to marry Ray (William H. Macy) a strict Mormon with creepy kids, so the clock’s ticking before the hammer comes down and Danielle will have to conform. She thinks that if she can locate her real dad she can live with him. Clarke discovers the identity of Danielle’s real father and the two track him down in California. One thing leads to another and soon enough, Danielle and Clarke have hit the road in his father’s gas guzzling car.
Once the road trip begins, Dirty Girl veers into familiar territory; you can pretty much predict how it will end. Still, Sylvia peppers last act of his film with well executed poignant scenes and several surprises, some that I’ve never seen in a coming of age film before. One particular sweet, dream like sequence involves a male stripper, an abandoned drive-in and an acoustic version of The Outfield’s greatest hit.
Despite it’s flaws, I really liked this movie, in part because it really captured the essence of the films I grew up watching, and in part because there is a joy and musicality to the director’s point of view. While it’s not perfect, Dirty Girl has enough heart, humor and a couple of great performances to make it worth checking out.