Film Review: Dirty Girl

Totally engaging road movie, lit by ingratiating performances. An impressive directorial debut by Abe Sylvia.

Making a strong bid for the most entertaining gay road film ever, in an already pretty crowded field, Dirty Girl takes place in 1987 Oklahoma and tracks Danielle (Juno Temple) as she searches for her long lost daddy, accompanied by bullied, overweight, closeted Clarke (Jeremy Dozier). The fact that Danielle is the proudly self-described slut of their high school makes them a particularly unlikely partnership, but she is nothing if not determined, blithely sweeping aside all barriers to get what she wants.

Rookie director/writer Abe Sylvia is a former dancer/choreographer and joins other movie helmers who have made the career jump, like Herbert Ross, Stanley Donen and a host of modern-day guys like Kenny Ortega. Sylvia brings a quick chorus-boy wit and flash to both his snappy, often deliciously obscene dialogue and visually savvy direction, and shows a sure, sensitive touch in his handling of his particularly strong cast. The film has a “Glee”-like reach in its embrace of misfits stuck in a conventional, often unwelcoming world, but makes its points simply, without that series’ sometimes baroque straining for effect.

Dirty Girl
is steeped in a deep affection for the 1980s, which obviously left an indelible youthful stamp on Sylvia, from the hilarious blow-dried coiffures on the actresses to the music score which is blissfully dotted with the kind of splashy period hits that made the Reagan era a rather shining moment in pop music, which middle-agers today recall with the fondness their forebears had for the tunes of Gershwin and Berlin. The lushly romantic music of Melissa Manchester (who also appears in a cameo) is a leitmotif, but other divas nostalgically wail away on the soundtrack, like Sheena Easton, Pat Benatar, Joan Jett and, especially, the late, great funksteress Teena Marie, whose “Lovergirl” gets some very juicy treatment on the car ride, as Danielle and Clarke ecstatically vogue to its irresistibly catchy sound.

Versatile Temple, the daughter of Brit director Julian (with his own strong ’80s ethos), simply dazzles with a spot-on Southern accent and utter sexual fearlessness which make her riveting throughout, like the very young Barbara Stanwyck in her pre-Code days. She also has the wonderful take-no-prisoners, authentic trashiness of Traci Lords, and when I mentioned this to Sylvia on meeting him, he laughed and said that John Waters had told him the same thing. Dozier, equally courageous—particularly in a scene that has him stripping down to his skivvies in a gay bar—makes an impressive film debut, possessed of that cherubically pretty face so often found in overweight men and a performance honesty that is really moving, devoid of mawkishness.

Milla Jovovich may be the youngest-looking mother of a teen in screen history, but, as Danielle’s mother, she is an amusingly flirtatious almost-cougar in which you can discern the roots of her girl’s restlessness. William H. Macy, as Danielle’s stepfather, brings wry obnoxiousness with his Mormon pontificating. As Clarke’s equally uncomprehending parents, Dwight Yoakam has a convincing redneck intensity, while Mary Steenbergen brings her usual dithery sweetness to a role that is maybe a tad too easy for her. Tim McGraw underplays nicely as the dad Danielle finds, much to her regret, and Nicholas D’Agosto makes the perfect fantasy figure for Clarke with a sexy dance and even sexier payoff that momentarily gives the kid a happy respite from his daily misery.