If there’s one thing “Dirty Girl” has going for it — and it’s made abundantly clear even before the glittery title card, spelled out in swoopy, neon-lit letters like the name of a roller disco — it’s that it has attitude. The titular dirty girl is an Oklahoma teen named Danielle (Juno Temple) who acts out in class and sleeps around. She has an infectiously “fuck you” approach to just about everything, from her classmates, agog at her sexual promiscuity, to her soon-to-be stepdad (William H. Macy), to her teachers, who bump her down to a remedial class where the most pressing assignment is taking care of a bag of flour like it’s an actual human baby.
But in the end, after the movie has worn out its welcome and all of its charms have dried up, “Dirty Girl,” written and directed by Abe Sylvia, is all attitude and no heart. It’s one thing to dress up a cute girl like Temple (so striking in Gregg Araki‘s vastly underrated, candy-colored “Kaboom“) in faux period get-ups and have her talk in brash, Diablo Cody-esque one-liners, but it’s another thing to make a movie (and a character) that’s actually worth caring about.
At first you might be encouraged, imagining that the movie will be about how Danielle, empowered by her own sexuality and not afraid to use it, despite the outrage of her fellow students, would create a kind of mini-sexual revolution in her high school. The film is set in 1987 (more on that in a minute), the decade following some truly amazing accomplishments in the women’s rights movement, and the film could have easily transferred that social consciousness into something like a smart, period version of “Mean Girls.” But no. The whole thing about Danielle being this whirling, lip-glossed force to be reckoned with, as dangerous to the townspeople as any Oklahoma tornado, is quickly dismissed.
Instead, what we get is a strange, half-formed buddy comedy/road movie that doesn’t quite hang together. Danielle befriends gay, chubby Clarke (Jeremy Dozier) in her remedial class and they’re partnered in an assignment to “parent” their flour sack child. They don’t get along at first, but outsiders usually stick together, and a bond quickly forms. When Danielle tells Clarke that she doesn’t know who her father is (her mother, played by Milla Jovovich, was a dirty girl in high school too), they quickly investigate and discover his whereabouts – Fresno, California. So, at Danielle’s urging, Clarke steals a car from his abusive father (Dwight Yoakam) and together they set out on a road trip to California.
If you’re wondering if this is as dull as it sounds, the answer is yes, it is. A glimmer of hope pops up when the mothers of both children – Jovovich and Mary Steenburgen, playing Clarke’s mom – team up to go retrieve their children. For a minute you think, “Oh, this will be interesting, the pairing of two disparate women, bonding over their children and creating a new friendship without the men in their lives.” But no. The idea is explored more in that sentence than in the actual movie, even sadder since the actresses are so terrific.
As the movie wears on the general incompetence of writer-director Abe Sylvia becomes more and more apparent. For one thing, the movie is set in 1987, so what’s with all the disco music (this is the year U2 released The Joshua Tree and Michael Jackson came out with Bad) and feathered hair? This was three years before 1990. Things in this movie look like they were set in the early 1970s, not even close to the approaching 1990s, and as such, the film creates a bewildering sense of time and place. (It’s lazy about those details it does attempt to get right too – Jovovich clutches a can of TAB with a post-millennial recycling logo stamped on it). It’s clumsily shot, with muted, muddy colors, and sequences play out without rhyme or reason. There’s a scene where the kids and a drifter they’ve picked up are parked at a drive-in movie theater, but you can’t even tell that’s where they are until a bizarrely theatrical fantasy sequence, where Clarke is seduced by said drifter, starts to unfold. It would make much more sense if we saw where they were before the movie screen flickered to life and the stereos started to blare. As it is, it’s just confusing.
Little regard is given to the rhythm or pace of the movie. Whole chunks of the film are simply based on what catchy pop song the film has got the rights to, snappily put together like a music video. Again: historical accuracy isn’t exactly key here either, as several Le Tigre songs are utilized. Supposedly after the film premiered in Toronto last fall, Harvey Weinstein took his scissors to it and while the film is under 90 minutes, you feel like he could have kept on trimming. It feels less like a movie and more like the pilot to some “edgy” new show on Fox (if you felt the characters in “Red State” were too richly drawn – get ready for truly awful caricatures, including such staples as The Dumb Mormon Guy and The Homophobic Dad).
Temple is dynamite, but it’s less of a revelatory performance if you’ve seen “Kaboom” – her character there is bolder and more atypical and sexier. And unlike in “Dirty Girl,” for all its bad-ass posturing, you actually get to see some skin. (“Dirty Girl” is rated R for “graphic nudity,” which means you see some naked men in Clarke’s pornography collection.) The friendship between Clarke and Danielle always feels forced, not because you can’t imagine her hanging out with a queeny gay kid, but because she’s just so much cooler. She’s a force of nature. He’s too shy to even admit he’s gay. But in the end, none of it really matters. “Dirty Girl” is over soon enough and you can go on with your life, forgetting all about its clumsy historical anachronisms, slipshod plotting, and thematic thinness. The film is all about a kind of shimmery swagger but what strikes you most, at the time you leave the theater, is how square it is. [D]