D: Abe Sylvia / 89m
Cast: Juno Temple, Jeremy Dozier, Milla Jovovich, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, William H. Macy, Nicholas D’Agosto, Tim McGraw
It’s 1987 in Oklahoma, and Danielle Edmondston (Temple) is constantly pushing the boundaries at her high school, being vulgar in class and unapologetically promiscuous. As a result of her behaviour, the principal transfers her out of regular classes into what is called The Challengers, a class Danielle regards as being for kids with special needs. At her first lesson she’s paired with Clarke Walters (Dozier), and they’re tasked with looking after a pretend baby (in this case a bag of flour) and keeping a diary of its daily life.
Danielle is less than impressed by the assignment but Clarke persuades her to go along with it. They begin to spend more time together, and to get to know each other. Danielle tells Clarke about her absent father, who bailed before she was born, while Clarke talks about his father, Joseph (Yoakam) and how he hates gays (Clarke is 35% gay according to a doctor he’s seen, but he’s keen to make it past 50%). When Danielle reveals that she has photos of her mother and father from before she was born, a check of the high school yearbook from when they were together reveals her father to be the assistant football coach at the time, Danny Briggs (McGraw). They find an address for him but when they go there, they learn that he’s moved to Fresno, California.
With her mother, Sue-Ann (Jovovich), planning to marry a Mormon named Ray (Macy), whom she detests, Danielle decides it’s time to go and meet her real father. She asks Clarke to go with her but he’s too afraid of what his father will do if they use his dad’s car (Ray has confiscated the keys to Danielle’s car). But when he gets home and discovers that his father knows about the gay porn he’s kept in his room, Clarke makes his escape in his dad’s car and picks up Danielle. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker, Joel (D’Agosto), a stripper heading for Las Vegas. Clarke is attracted to Joel and when they make an overnight stop, Danielle leaves the two of them alone. The next morning, however, Joel is gone.
Meanwhile, Joseph has gone to Danielle’s house and broken in in an attempt to find out where the two friends have gone. But with nobody home, he’s arrested and put in jail. His long-suffering wife, Peggy (Steenburgen), arrives at the jail but refuses to take him home. Instead she leaves him there and decides she’ll look for Clarke and Danielle herself. She calls on Sue-Ann and together they fly to Fresno so they can warn Danielle’s father that she’s coming. But Joseph’s car breaks down, leaving enough time to go by for Joseph to be released and catch up with them. When he does, Clarke confronts his father and gives Danielle the chance to get away and still get to Fresno.
The phrase, “Nobody likes a dirty girl” is uttered twice in Dirty Girl, first by the principal as a pointed reminder that Danielle’s behaviour will only get her so far, and then by Danielle herself as an ironic statement reflecting how she’s developed over the course of the movie. In both cases it’s a badge of pride for Danielle, one that defines her within the milieu of her high school (but not in the wider world, where she is just another teenager with “issues”). Basing his script on his own experiences growing up in the Eighties, writer/director Sylvia has fashioned a tale that shows what can happen when self-assurance gives way to longing, and how that longing can prompt a change in attitude in even the most rebellious and uncompromising of teenagers.
However, the reason for Danielle’s behaviour is never properly explained. Sure, she’s never known her father, but it’s a fragile hook to hang such an unhappy personality on, and the role of Sue-Ann in Danielle’s life is too vague for comfort (one scene aside, Jovovich plays Sue-Ann as if she’s reacting to everything a few seconds too late, leaving the character looking somewhat adrift from the action). Danielle picks out her future conquests then drops them just as quickly, but if you were to ask why, the movie hasn’t got an answer. Nor does it try to explain why Danielle would hook up with a shy, overweight homosexual (other than that if they didn’t, the movie would be a lot shorter). As odd couples go, they’re not that odd either, just a couple of lonely individuals who learn to support each other, and where haven’t we seen that before?
With the script prompting more questions than it can answer, and with too many scenes bumping awkwardly against each other, Dirty Girl tries for an emotional honesty that doesn’t quite come off, leaving some moments feeling preachy and tired. As the aggressive, troubled Danielle, Temple proves yet again what an intuitive young actress she is, and it’s easy to see the neediness behind her flirtatious image and attitude. Likewise, Dozier – making his feature debut – portrays Clarke’s goofy, endearing personality as if it’s the only thing about him that’s any good. Browbeaten by his father, Clarke lives that life of “quiet desperation” so beloved of screenwriters everywhere, but here it’s less pointed and apparently more manageable, thus limiting the drama. Dozier is very good in the role but he has to work extra hard sometimes to make Clarke less compliant.
With a great supporting cast doing their best with a script that doesn’t give them an awful lot to play with, Sylvia does his best to make Danielle and Clarke’s journey a rewarding one both for them and for the viewer, but he doesn’t quite manage it (though he does manage to offset the drama with some well-judged pockets of humour). While Dirty Girl isn’t a bad movie per se, what it is is a movie that you can engage with on a straightforward level and not be disappointed. But when you start to look at it more closely, it’s a movie that lacks the depth necessary to carry off the narrative. There are plenty of teen dramas out there, but this one misses out on being truly memorable.
Rating: 5/10 – lacking the necessary freshness needed to make this stand out from the crowd, Dirty Girl is forced to rely on two quality performances from its leads; a sharper script would have helped, but based on its own merits it’s only occasionally diverting and less satisfying than its premise might imply.