Reviewed at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival.
It wouldn’t be fair to the filmmakers behind “Dirty Girl” to ignore the fact that after it became the film to score one of the richest distribution deals thus far at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, a target was placed on its back. With that said, I now know what it must felt like to have been part of the audience for the film’s first press screening of Joel Schumacher’s drama “Twelve” where it had been jeered and laughed at only to discover days later it had been bought for $2 million. As a comedy, “Dirty Girl” has precious few laughs, but delivers the same sort of shock — I could’ve gone the rest of my days happily without seeing Dwight Yoakam simulate ejaculating on his prized Cadillac with a garden hose during a gratuitous car wash scene or the sweaty striptease of portly newcomer Jeremy Dozier clad in “Flashdance” regalia, doused in water in front of a confederate flag.
If “Dirty Girl” made me feel anything, it was a sense of empathy for the poor people of Oklahoma, where the film is set and the folks are broadly drawn by writer/director Abe Sylvia — and I’m an alum of the University of Texas. Like an extended middle finger to middle America, Sylvia injects as much venom as possible into the story of Danielle (Juno Temple), a promiscuous teen in 1987 Oklahoma whose class assignment of a family tree leads her to look for her long-gone father.
Why she’s doing an assignment like this in high school is questionable, since I remember such projects well behind me by the time the 3rd or 4th grade rolled around, but it’s convenient for the story since Danielle is old enough to drive, which is important when she and her gay classmate Clarke take off in his father’s aforementioned Caddy for California where she believes her pops resides. Unpopular at school and even less so at home where Clarke’s homophobe dad (Yoakam) and Danielle’s Mormon soon-to-be stepfather lay down the law, only the mothers (Milla Jovovich and Mary Steenburgen) care enough to look when they flee Norman.
Disguised as a satire of quaint Midwestern values, “Dirty Girl” plays out like any angry tirade, where passion soon gives way to lapses in logic and reckless disregard for anything that doesn’t move the story forward. While Dozier and Temple clearly give their all to their roles, the characters are hopelessly inconsistent.
Dozier’s Clarke, the fat kid with jowls like a bulldog who battles with awkwardness at school, is liberated once he’s out on the road, free to proposition a stranger in a gas station stall by complimenting his Bugle Boy jeans (not for sex initially, but where it leads is far more ridiculous). Likewise, Temple’s Danielle spends the first half of the picture taking pride in her sluttiness as a badge of honor, only to be offended when a hotel manager (Brian Baumgartner) suggests she’s a whore in the second, presumably because the film can’t play off of it anymore for cheap gags.
The only reason you can never really know where “Dirty Girl” is headed is due to Sylvia’s ability to take a cliché and overdo it to the point where other filmmakers would’ve stopped — there’s more than one striptease, the ’80s soundtrack heavy on Melissa Manchester is overbearing, and tight closeups are employed for some of the mildest conversations. The height of hilarity in the movie is the changing expressions on the sack of flour Danielle and Clarke carry around as their baby as part of their school assignment, but even then, it’s a case of diminishing returns. (On an unrelated note, the whole film looks like it was shot in a haze, which is even more of a surprise when discovering cinematographer Steve Gainer was also responsible for the excellent vérité look of fellow TIFF title “Super.”)
Of course, films less skilled technically than this have gotten by on the strength of their script, but “Dirty Girl” subsists on a steady diet of filthy language pouring out of Temple’s mouth and flamboyant dialogue from Dozier, neither of whom can overcome the general strain of nastiness inherent in the material. Sure, we’re supposed to root for Clarke and Danielle to find themselves on the road, but when Danielle tells Clarke early in the film, “I don’t want your AIDS on my couch,” you’d think it would take more than a day or two to become BFFs as they do.
Similarly, no amount of feathered hairdos or break-ins of Teena Marie’s “Lovergirl” (which allows for a sing-along moment on the drive to Fresno) can dress up the fact that “Dirty Girl” is pretty empty at its core, a film that would like to be about self-empowerment when it ultimately reinforces the attitudes that breed self-contempt. Some may call “Dirty Girl” sharp and edgy, and that’s their right, but I found it downright dull.
“Dirty Girl” was picked up by the Weinstein Company and will play once more in Toronto on September 18th.