The bedeviling writing-directing debut of Abe Sylvia, "Dirty Girl" is what you get when an audience crowd-pleaser flies past its indie roots and achieves success as a comedy, a drama, and an identifiable slice-of-life without feeling the need to talk down to viewers. Done without heaps of money but pulled off all the same with a lot of spit, polish and ambition, the film is commercially viable, quick-witted and finally poignant in its look at two unlikely friends and outsiders searching for acceptance in an overly judgmental community. The standout performances from Juno Temple (2011's "Kaboom!
") and newcomer Jeremy Dozier and an exceptional soundtrack of '80s music picked for its appropriateness to the material rather than the popularity of each track are welcome bonuses.
Norman, Oklahoma, 1987.
Wild-child Danielle (Juno Temple) is unapologetic in her loose ways and opinionated demeanor, the latter trait cause for her to be placed in the remedial Challengers classes down in the basement of the high school. She doesn't belong there, and neither does the quiet, repressed, virginal Clarke (Jeremy Dozier). When they are paired up on a project where they must parent a bag of flour named Joan, they are given a tiny peek into each other's lives and are surprised to find that they share more in common than meets the eye. Clarke's domineering father Joseph (Dwight Yoakam) is in denial over his son's homosexuality and threatening to send him to military school as sympathetic mother Peggy (Mary Steenburgen) looks on, nearing her breaking point for keeping quiet within her suffocating marriage. For Danielle, she does not approve of single mother Sue-Ann's (Milla Jovovich) announcement that she plans to marry devout Mormon Ray (William H. Macy) and believes that she might be able to solve her family troubles if only she can track down her estranged birth father. With their parents in hot pursuit, Clarke and Danielle take to the open road en route to Fresno, Californiathe first time Danielle has ever stepped foot outside the dusty state lines of Oklahoma.
"Dirty Girl" details a journey of self-discovery that, one can be sure, will forever join Clarke and Danielle as lifelong confidantes and friends. Even if it falls in line with road movie conventions and literal theatrics of the feel-good variety, it does so with a resonant human authenticity and a minimum of pandering. Danielle and Clarke are types at the start who transform into true originals the more one gets to know them, and Juno Temple and Jeremy Dozier are one of the most surprisingly sweet cinematic pairings in some time. Their relationship is not romanticindeed, there's no changing their shared interest in boysbut that little detail doesn't keep the film from being a love story at heart. As for the goings-on during their trip to the west coast, they are predictably episodic in nature, but turn the expected, like a visit to a strip club and a run-in with a hunky hitchhiker named Joel (Nicholas D'Agosto), squarely on their heads. Writer-director Abe Sylvia has some serious messages to get across, but he does it without losing his fun, flit-paced tone.
Juno Temple has been knocking around in small roles for several years, but here she is front and center, more than proving her star quality. That Temple is British playing a Southern-drawled Midwest teenager with the seeming effortlessness of a born eclectic talent is all the more impressive. Danielle has a big personality, no doubt, and she isn't above sometimes spouting off cruel things out of rash anger or sadness. The arc that Temple gives this character by the end, stripping her of both her make-up and the emotional walls she has built around herself just in time for her fateful meeting with her dad (Tim McGraw), is emphatically felt and deeply moving. Behind all of Danielle's put-ons is but a little girl who wants to know that there are people out there who love her. Meeting Temple step for step is Jeremy Dozier, accurately getting to the core of Clarke's being as an introverted guy not comfortable in his body or life who breaks out of his shell the more he stands up for himself. These two actors have plenty of terrific scenes together that show the growing camaraderie between them: the way that Clarke listens to Danielle when she talks about wanting to find her father, the way that they sing Teena Marie's "Lovergirl" as they barrel through the desert, the way that Danielle makes a selfless sacrifice that shall go unnamed solely out of wanting Clarke to be happy.
Mary Steenburgen (2009's "Did You Hear About the Morgans?
") and Milla Jovovoich (2010's "Resident Evil: Afterlife
") lend strong support as mothers Peggy and Sue-Ann, who team up to find their kids as they, too, come into their own. Steenburgen is a beacon of light as a woman discovering her voice after years of having it silenced, and Jovovich is touching as a younger mother who doesn't know how to get through to the stubborn Danielle about the love she has for her. With only one scene, Tim McGraw (2010's "Country Strong
") leaves an indelible impression as Danielle's real father; it will be up to the viewer to discover what comes out of this reunion. Special note must go to an especially impressive Nicholas D'Agosto (2011's "Final Destination 5
"), unforgettably playing good-natured hitchhiker Joel. The strip-tease dance he performs for Clarke in a desolate drive-in lot to the sounds of Outfield's "Your Love" is very nearly breathtaking in its equal parts seductiveness and empathy, all visual and technical aspects joining together for a truly sublime three-minute stretch of film.
"Dirty Girl" concludes with the energy it started with even if the characters, blessed with a growing levity, stand markedly apart from the broader people they were early on. There's more to most of themlike the filmthan meets the eye. A subplot involving Sue-Ann's engagement to the devoutly religious Ray is the one element that could have been done without since there is no payoff to it and the relationship seems based more out of desperation than genuine affection. Will Ray really be a good fit for Sue-Ann and Danielle? Based on the evidence seen in the film, no. At least William H. Macy (2011's "The Lincoln Lawyer
") underplays the part; it's written with enough exaggeration as it is. This aside, "Dirty Girl" is a difficult picture to turn away from, meaning well and pulling it off just as confidently. True, the talent show finale is a formulaic cinematic event (and the use of Melissa Manchester's "Don't Cry Out Loud" instantly calls comparison to its similar, more comedic use in 1999's beauty pageant satire "Drop Dead Gorgeous
"), but even this is earned and satisfying. Sealing the deal on a now-unbreakable friendship between Danielle and Clarke that neither would want to be without, the end for these two soul mates is, as the saying goes, just the beginning.