'Dirty Girl': Road to Clichés
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
I first saw "Dirty Girl" at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival, with the film's announced purchase by the Weinstein Company followed, as day follows dawn, by the news that the film would be recut before release. I can't note where and how the film's been altered exactly -- it feels a little cleaner and leaner while not necessarily being any better. However, the new cut doesn't remove any of the film's too-many indie clichés and bewildering moments of whimsy. There is, to its credit, one sequence in the film that makes it watchable, but that alone can't make up for a tired misfits-on-a-road-trip plot we've seen 10,000 times before.
Danielle (Juno Temple) lives in Norman, Okla., in 1987. She's an ill-behaved young woman who spends most of her time lashing out at her single mom (Milla Jovovich) and acting up -- we meet her in voice-over while she's shagging in a car in the parking lot of her high school -- and her bad behavior soon gets her bounced to special ed, where she's teamed up with Clarke (Jeremy Dozier), an overweight teen struggling with his gayness and his horrible, hateful dad (Dwight Yoakam). Danielle and Clarke have the assigned exercise of "raising" a flour-sack "child" to teach that parenting is challenging, but soon the three hit the highway in the much-loved Cadillac they boosted from Clarke's dad as Danielle discovers that her long-lost father is actually living in Fresno.
The film includes plenty of timeworn and too-familiar moments: road trips, the suggestion that life during the '80s had great tunes and little else, and unlikely allies who become besties. Some of the film is undone by its own sense of eccentricity: The facial expression on "Joan" (after Jett and Crawford), the flour-sack baby, actually changes in light of the emotional tone of scenes, for but one example. There are other missteps, as well. Temple is charming enough -- see her in Gregg Araki's psychotic, candy-colored "Kaboom" for proof -- but she really only gets to act in one scene. And Dozier mostly plays Clarke like a shrunken-yet-swollen Charles Nelson Reilly, all hissed witticisms and hurt feelings, so that the few scenes he shines out in blur into broad comedy and sharp bon mots.
And yet there's one truly great scene in "Dirty Girl," between Temple and Tim McGraw, one scene that feels like people talking and not actors acting, where Danielle feels like a real teen instead of a creation from the mind of writer-director Abe Sylvia. Details would ruin it, but it stands out from the clichés and cuteness and pop songs (like many first-time directors, Sylvia uses pop music to do about 80 percent of the emotional heavy lifting in his film) like a gem against a background of cardboard.
To get to that scene, though, you have to wade through so much, like Danielle hiring a hitchhiking male exotic dancer to seduce Clarke in a moment set to the strains of the Outfield's "Your Love." Or the final musical number that lifts from "An Officer and a Gentleman." Or the weary swarm of road-trip bits, from the dive bar that isn't what it seems to be to impromptu stripteases and legal trouble far from home. Watching Clarke and Danielle figure out their daddy issues in the wide-open spaces of the West isn't that interesting, but again, there are a few moments that suggest Sylvia could become a real director. In the end, "Dirty Girl" isn't nearly as messy or real or raw as it needs to be -- mostly it's just grubby with shopworn familiarity and glammed up with too many pop songs.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com,
Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was
also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now
lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.