Dirty Girl: Abe Sylvia’s Autobiographical Feature Debut

By Patrick Z. McGavin
Toronto Film Fest (Discovery)–Abe Sylvia certainly carries the courage of his convictions. His autobiographically shaded debut feature, “Dirty Girl,” abounds in his own shamelessness. And that seems entirely the point, given the movie was one of the first independent American titles to acquire distribution, from the Weinstein Company.
Even the title misleads. The story of an unlikely friendship that develops between a promiscuous girl and a lonely and frustrated boy, “Dirty Girl” is a road movie that traffics in a surfeit of sleaze and easy putdowns. That’s only the beginning of its problems. The kind of material Sylvia is going after, religious piety, social intolerance, requires a sureness of touch and a feathery style that comically upbraids its subject.
Unfortunately, the execution is blunt and over the top. When Sylvia does try to take the material in a darker direction, he lacks the subtlety of expression and visual precision to carry it off. The movie’s not a complete loss. The movie’s primary attractiveness are the two leads. Sylvia’s showmanship style allows two gifted young performers, especially British actress JunoTemple and newcomer Jeremy Dozier, to strut their stuff.
The story’s set in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1987, at the end of the Reagan Administration. Danielle (Temple, the daughter of British filmmaker JulienTemple) is introduced, in the comically bleak monotone of Clarke (Dozier), in yet another act of sexual congress, this time in the school parking lot. She’s willowy, beautiful and a sexual provocateur. She’s also so uninhibited she clearly has scared off most of her classmates.
Her sexual outlandishness raises the ire of the school principal, who promptly demotes her to a remedial group, euphemistically known as the “Challengers” (allowing for the first of several rather tasteless jokes about the ill-fated space shuttle launch).
Clarke is her complete opposite: unattractive, overweight and devoid of friends. He’s also gay, for which he is taunted and beaten mercilessly by the school’s jocks. (Despite the movie being set in Norman, nothing is made of it being a prominent university town, or that the period is set during a time Oklahoma had the country’s best college football program.) At the start Danielle is openly contemptuous of Clarke, but they are yoked together for a class assignment on parenting. 
That allows both to see the rather unsavory aspects of their respective personal lives. Danielle lives with her single mother, Sue-Ann (Milla Jovovich), a pretty though somewhat brittle woman. She has horrified her daughter with her intention to marry Ray (William H. Macy), an uptight, sanctimonious Mormon with a teenage son and adolescent daughter Danielle despises. Clarke’s situation is worse, humiliated by his bigoted and status obsessed father, Joseph (Dwight Yoakam), as his mother, Peggy (Mary Steenburgen), remains too ineffectual and tormented to intervene on his behalf. 
It is also part of the hypocrisy of the film it lacks the daring and sexual subversion, even, to remain unapologetic about Danielle’s sexual flamboyance. In fact, it takes a very conservative and conventional course. In trying to address the question of why Danielle behaves the way she does, “Dirty Girl” turns into an origins tale. Having purloined Clarke’s father’s prized Cadillac and his credit card, the two outsiders hit the open road, for adventure and excitement, on trip Fresno to locate the father Danielle has never known.
The movie’s jaunty and fast, but Sylvia never quite slows the tempo or story rhythm down a notch to deepen the characters, or give their actions or behavior any real dimension or observational insight. The plot turns increasingly segmented and episodic, methodically cut between the two misfit teens on the road against the frenetic and desperate actions of their parents back in Norman. The plotting turns preposterous at both ends.
Sylvia has a good idea of contrasting how their individual strengths play off one another, Danielle’s confidence and verve a nice balance to Clarke’s generosity of spirit. Insouciant and sexy, Temple is beautiful and blessed with a strong presence, but she also needs a strong director to shape and modulate her work. The conception of Clarke suffers from prolonged bouts of self-pity and desperation. Dozier is game and active, and he brings a natural humor to the part (even if he appears too old).
It is the secondary characters where the film really has problems. The social caricature, from the regional accents to the florid stylization of character, pumps the movie up, like  a float in the Macy’s Day Parade, and the movie goes dizzy because pretty much every emotion and feeling is overdone. Sylvia plunges the story into a darker vein, especially with the material involving Yoakam’s creepy father, and he lacks the sophistication or point of view to really pull if off. The mounting hysteria of the plotting and the farceur actions cry out for quieter and more anguished moments of introspection and self-revelation. 
Aside from the two leads, the best thing about the movie is the lively soundtrack. A former Broadway dancer, Sylvia intuitively understands the primal, even visceral connection between music and identity with teenagers. One just wishes he were less emphatic about making his own point.