Debut film is redeemed by solid acting
Abe Sylviaâs debut feature, Dirty Girl, could have easily turned out to be one of the worst films of the year. It is clichĂ©-ridden, both in terms of its characters and its plot, and is as thematically and stylistically haphazard as movies come.
But with Juno Temple, destined to be Hollywoodâs next it-girl, and promising newcomer Jeremy Dozier breathing life into the lead characters, Sylviaâs otherwise hackneyed film becomes tolerable, even engaging. Dirty Girl stands as a testament to adept acting transcending mediocre writing and direction.
Clearly, Sylvia has a strong personal connection to the material â few would dare set a movie in a place like Norman, Okla., in 1987 without having been there to experience it â but this alone does not translate into a nuanced or human-feeling premise.
During the first act of the film, before the central performances grab hold of the viewer, the scriptâs vast number of obtuse stereotypes is downright confounding.
Templeâs Danielle is the filmâs notorious high school slut, probably because she learned the role from her mother (Milla Jovovich), who neglects her in favor of the latest boyfriend, a Mormon caricature. Dozierâs Clarke is abused by his fundamentalist father (Dwight Yoakam) because of his apparent homosexuality, while his subordinate mother (Mary Steenburgen) sits powerless.
For a good 20 minutes, it seems the movie will simply be one long barrage of cheap-shots at conservative Middle America â a tired mold long before it ever reached Hollywood.
The plot only becomes more painfully conventional once Danielle and Clarke join forces. They are paired for a school project, and days later embark on an impromptu cross-country road-trip in search of Danielleâs biological father.
What happens on the road trip is nothing short of transformational, but not in the hokey story-related way Sylvia intends. It is here the actors take the reigns from their director. Thrust into the vacuum of Clarkeâs dadâs car, borrowed without asking, of course, and unshackled by the one-dimensional supporting cast, Temple and Dozier seize the opportunity to turn caricatures into real people.
Temple is downright magnetic, creating an infectious character viewers are sure to enjoy spending time with, despite Danielleâs foul-mouthed, rough-around-the-edges exterior. She barely resembles her real-life self, trading in her British accent for a Southern drawl and her frizzy mane for a straightened, bleach-blonde hairdo. But her star quality is unmistakable. By the end, the viewer is truly invested in Danielleâs pursuit of her father, a real feat for the actress given Sylviaâs anemic development.
Dozierâs future Hollywood prospects are less certain â chubby, 20-something males often end up relegated to supporting parts in Adam Sandler productions â but his work is equally praiseworthy. His role is more difficult than Templeâs, because he is essentially required to play the universal gay stereotype. But Dozier adeptly interprets Clarkeâs overly flamboyant image as the characterâs way of finally embracing his socially shunned identity â an ingenious approach.
Having strong lead characters, worthy of affection, does the movie wonders as a whole, too. As Danielle and Clarkeâs personalities earn the audienceâs affections on the road, viewers should be able to accept the seemingly out-of-place, off-the-wall style Sylvia develops as part of the fun.
Supplemented by Steve Gainerâs grainy cinematography, the aesthetic contains elements of a wide variety of exploitation genres, from queer cinema to blaxploitation (even though there are no African-American characters). The soundtrackâs endless barrage of â80s show-stoppers, which far outdoes Napoleon Dynamite, is also rather amusing.
Needless to say, whatever heavy-handed social commentary Sylvia was trying to vocalize â about homophobia, the outsider in us all, how kidsâ life trajectories often mirror those of their parents, etc. â the moral doesnât have much of an impact because of the filmâs shortcomings. But thanks to Temple and Dozier, Dirty Girl makes for an adequate diversion, not the train-wreck it had every reason to be.