Dirty Girl is, at first, a nicely done buddy road-trip picture, with all of its requisite trappings: singing along to ‘80s songs, pulling stunts in front of rowdy bar crowds for cash, picking up hitchhikers.
“No one likes a dirty girl,” a high school principal tells Danielle (Juno Temple), the firecracker at the center of Dirty Girl. He's wrong, of course. Plenty of people love a dirty girl, this film's writer and director Abe Sylvia first and foremost. Danielle, growing up in Norman, Oklahoma in 1987, is the very picture of fun feistiness. She wears high espadrilles, piles on the makeup, smokes cigarettes, goes too far with boys in her Mustang convertible, and mouths off to people in an adorable Southern drawl. She sounds like a cliché, but Temple’s performance makes this dirty girl is a formidable heroine in high-waisted short shorts.
The movie submits that Danielle’s out-of-control presence is heartening for those around her. Her high school classmate, Clarke (Jeremy Dozier), is paired up with Danielle for a school project. Together, they’re supposed to take care of a sack of flour to learn parenting skills and personal responsibility. Barely out of the closet, Clarke is Danielle’s opposite: interior, non-confrontational, insecure. He reaches out to her as an unlikely ally, and Danielle relents when she needs Clarke’s help in driving out to California to track down her long absent father.
What follows is a nicely done buddy road-trip picture, with all of its requisite trappings: singing along to ‘80s songs, pulling stunts in front of rowdy bar crowds for cash, picking up hitchhikers. The familiarity doesn't detract from the hopeful spirit of the movie. Danielle and Clarke’s relationship is mostly convincing, and Temple and Dozier share an easy-seeming chemistry. Clarke is a fresh take on the gay-best-friend character in that he’s actually a character as opposed to an accessory. Not just there to provide quippy commentary on the main action, he’s given room to fret, to flirt, to even bicker with Danielle. It’s invigorating to see his journey is given equal weight throughout the movie.
When the film separates Clarke and Danielle -- which it does for too-long stretches, especially near its end -- it loses energy and lightness, dipping into melodrama. The obstacles Sylvia throws in their way feel tired. The primary case in point is Clarke’s father (Dwight Yoakam). Straight out of the bad-dad handbook, he's cartoonishly one-dimensional, violent and disapproving of Clarke’s sexuality. Danielle’s impediment is a little more nuanced: she's seeking out the father she never knew even as she's resisting a new stepfather (William H. Macy), but her reason for outright hating him is his strict Mormonism. The movie's version of his religious rigidity borders on condescension. The two mothers, played by Milla Jovovich and Mary Steenburgen, are treated a little more fairly. It’s clear they're grappling with how to be good parents, even if they can't see how.
Ultimately, Dirty Girl -- which was picked by the Weinstein Company for an eyebrow-raising $3 million at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and is just hitting theaters now -- is about what makes a family, broken or whole. The struggle to figure it all out is cleverly told through the point of view of "Joan," the sack of flour that Danielle and Clarke take care of in the beginning. Part of the assignment is to keep a diary in the point of view of the flour-child, and Danielle keeps this up even as she and Clarke skip school to head out west. As she observes events around her, Joan also provides a running visual gag that rescues the film from too much seriousness.
The lessons Joan illuminates about families, however, are a little too by-the-numbers, and lead to too many teary epiphanies. Thankfully, Temple nimbly works her way through these. But if the film is offering a choice between the edgy misfit on the road or the weepy self-actualized human being who arrives at her destination, I like the dirty girl.