One of the first films to be picked up by a distributor when it made its debut at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (the rumour is that The Weinstein Company made the $3 million offer 20 minutes into the premiere screening), Dirty Girl is an off beat gem that’s well worth the bidding war it inspired.
Juno Temple (Atonement, Notes on a Scandal) stars as the titular “dirty girl,” Danielle, a young woman who lives with her desperately-trying-to-convert-to-Mormon single mom Sue-Ann (Milla Jovovich) and takes pleasure in being the school bad girl. After pushing her principal too far, she gets placed in the “special kids” class where she’s paired up with closeted loner, Clarke (newcomer Jeremy Dozier), in a class project involving caring for a bag of flour meant to represent a baby.
As the two uneasily adapt to their new defacto family, they get to know one another and begin to bond over their common unhappy home lives: Danielle’s mom is about to marry a blandly nice but way too religious man (William H. Macy) who’s attempting discipline Danielle for her wild child behaviour, and Clarke’s Dad (Dwight Yoakum) is an abusive jerk who regularly tries to bully the gay out of him while his loving but cowed Mother (Mary Steenburgen) stands by and watches. When Clarke discovers the identity of Danielle’s real Dad (Tim McGraw) in an old yearbook, the two decide to set out on a cross country road trip to meet him.
The film, which is set in 1987, features a fantastic soundtrack of authentic hits of the era that really capture the essence of the decade, including 15 tracks by Melissa Manchester, giving the film the feeling of being a musical without actually having the characters break into song.
First-time feature filmmaker Abe Sylvia (he also wrote the film) has done the impossible; he’s created a believable female character that refuses to submit to the typical “bad girl” stereotype so prevalent in movies and on television.
Danielle is both tough and vulnerable; a young woman who likes to try on the skin of adult but also wishes she had more chances to just be a little girl. Despite all her posturing and cynical big talk, she’s actually a dreamer who wants a better life for herself.
Juno Temple is pitch perfect in the role, disappearing into her character’s twangy accent and eye-popping spandex outfits, always using her barbed tongue as a weapon, but slowly peeling away the layers of her well-protected core as the trip takes her closer and closer to the Father who she believes will give her the life she’s always dreamed of.
Jeremy Dozier is believable as a young gay man who’s coming to terms with his sexuality in the spectre of his Father’s intolerance and his Mother’s inability to stand up for him. Away from his family and in the company of the first person to ever stand up for him, he flourishes and begins to find his backbone. Dozier’s portrayal of Clarke’s transformation is heart wrenching and he more than keeps up with the far more experienced actors surrounding him.
The story mostly hits all of the right notes despite a few missteps in the form of some unruly subplots that slow down the action, but it’s to Sylvia’s credit that he’s able to keep the much-used coming-of-age on a road trip scenario from becoming trite or contrived. He’s managed to create a story that’s a mixture of My So-Called Life and Glee – it’s sweetly funny and heart-warming, but it also feels like it has some real weight, especially when it addresses the types of issues that have recently been thrust into the spotlight by the “It Gets Better” campaign targeted at bullied teens.
This is a period film that still manages to have a timely message; quite the feat for a filmmaker and quite the journey to take as a moviegoer.