It's probably appropriate that a film about adolescent identity crises has trouble figuring out what it wants to be. Much like puberty, Abe Sylvia's Dirty Girl is a mess of conflicting, confusing emotions. It starts out going for overtly campy satire -- with limited success -- before transforming into a heartfelt coming-of-age road movie with whimsical surrealist flourishes. This is a film that early on finds Dwight Yoakum washing his Cadillac in gratuitously sensual slow motion, and by its end finds room for after-school-special emotionalism. Bad sex jokes, worse decision-making, some singing and dancing, with a few crying jags along the way: Sounds like a typical day as a teenager.
Juno Temple stars as Danielle, an Oklahoma high-schooler with a reputation for jumping into bed (or the back of a car) with any cute boy who catches her eye -- and for mouthing off to any available authority figure. We always have choices in any situation, or so goes the abstinence lecture in her health class; Danielle just happens to make all the wrong ones as far as the school administration is concerned. After yet another outburst, she's placed in a remedial class as punishment.
It's there that she meets Clarke (Jeremy Dozier), an awkward chubby kid whose difficulties stem from something that's not his choice at all, though his parents are trying to convince him that it is: His attraction to other boys. The two get teamed up for an old sex-ed staple -- caring for a bag of flour as if it were their baby -- and after a rocky start, a kinship develops. In one of the more endearing character-defining moments of the film, they argue over which Joan to name their little bundle of gluten after: Jett or Crawford.
Sylvia, in his feature-film debut, bases much of their connection around their daddy issues. Danielle's issue is that she's never met hers, and is about to get one she doesn't want; her ditzy mother (Milla Jovovich) has hooked up with an earnest Mormon (William H. Macy) who's keen to marry her mom and adopt her. Clarke, meanwhile, is suffering from too much fatherly attention: His dad (Yoakum) is a mean, abusive bigot determined to straighten his son out at any cost. When Danielle discovers her true dad's identity, she and Clarke embark on a road trip to California, her towards her father, him away from his.
The clumsy, over-eager comedy of the first portion of the movie gives way here to a more relaxed mood. There's a genuinely sweet celebration of the freedom that comes with the road, including the requisite cheesy sing-alongs and a little sexual discovery for Clarke, via a hitchhiking male stripper they pick up on the way to Vegas.
By this time, of course, all the respective parents are hunting for their wayward kids, and sorting out some of their own issues in the process. Here's where things get predictably maudlin: Everyone has their assigned life lesson to learn, and Sylvia wrings all the tears he can from their moments of clarity.
What success the film does achieve rests squarely on Dozier's slumped shoulders; he gives Clarke an irresistible charm and inner strength. Despite his oppressive home life, he's still capable of the irrepressible joy evident in a scene of him exuberantly dancing alone in his room. The title may promise a film about a dirty girl, but it's the story about the shy guy that's more compelling. The movie is at its best when focused on his gradual coming out -- of the closet and of his shell.
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