REVIEW: Tepid But Harmless Dirty Girl Makes Special Plea for '80s Teen Misfits
Every era has its misfits, people who feel out of step with their contemporaries and the world. As a plea for tolerance and understanding of oddballs, Dirty Girl, the debut feature from writer-director Abe Sylvia, hits every note so squarely on the beat that in the end, it's nothing but square. It doesn't matter that Sylvia has stocked the soundtrack with killer '80s pop from the likes of Bow Wow Wow, Teena Marie and Joan Jett. The movie's true poster girl is the drippy Melissa Manchester, urging us to sing from our souls, because she thinks we can make it.
In Dirty Girl, Juno Temple plays '80s misfit Danielle, a hot-pants heartbreaker who has earned, to paraphrase Jett, a bad reputation around her school. Not that she cares. Trapped in Oklahoma, the daughter of a single mom (played by Milla Jovovich) who's about to make the mistake of marrying a Mormon (William H. Macy), Danielle gets a kick out of acting out. But deep down, what she really wants to do is find her absentee father, a man she's never met. She reluctantly befriends the class loser, the stocky, awkward, hoodie-wearing Clarke (Jeremy Dozier), whose own parents (Dwight Yoakam and Mary Steenburgen) are on the verge of disowning him because they suspect -- rightly -- that he might be gay. The two take off on a cross-country jaunt in search of Danielle's dad, and not long after, their worried-frantic moms team up and head out to find them.
Dirty Girl is harmless enough, and the early scenes, in which Danielle surveys poor Clarke with snobbish contempt, have a pleasing nastiness. The two have been thrown into a "special" class, where they're charged with pairing off to care for flour sacks that are supposed to represent babies. While their fellow students decorate their little charges with gaudy eyelashes and drawn-on lips, giving them de facto personalities, Clarke and Danielle carelessly drop theirs on the floor. But before long, they're expressing their otherwise unexpressable feelings through that fake baby -- it draws them together, exactly as it's intended to do.
Still, nearly every element of Dirty Girl is so broad and exaggerated that the picture just becomes wearying. The adult characters -- particularly Yoakam's disapproving dad -- are intentionally oversized, but they just come off as shrill and cardboardy. Dozier brings some sweetness to Clarke, but he doesn't have enough presence to hold down his end of the picture. Temple, on the other hand, is an appealing young actress: She was wonderful as the loopy, seductive free spirit London in Gregg Araki's end-of-the-world romp >Kaboom. She throws off some lovely energy here, particularly in a scene, late in the movie, that also features Tim McGraw in a small role. McGraw's character is written, and played, as the movie's most sympathetic adult presence, and he rises to the challenge beautifully. Though he's best known as a country singer (and the husband of Faith Hill), he's given some wonderful, understated performances in pictures like The Blind Side and Country Strong, and when he showed up in Dirty Girl, I sighed with relief: At last, a real human being! His scene with Temple is gentle, lyrical and believable, and it gives Dirty Girl some much-needed ballast and heart. But mostly, the picture ladles out the Melissa Manchester empowerment message way too heavily. It's enough to want to make you cry out loud.