For a movie hellbent on marketing itself as the seedy tale of a small-town tramp, Dirty Girl sure has an odd way of making good on its promise. There’s a girl, and she’s prone to dirty acts, but that’s just one patch of this arbitrarily stitched quilt of white-trash, Bible-Belt transgression, which flattens under the weight of a truckload of half-realized ambitions. Writer-director Abe Sylvia claims the 1987-set film is derived from his experiences as an overweight closet case at his Oklahoma high school, and the daily debauchery of his promiscuous female classmate, who he desperately wished was his right-hand hag. With Dirty Girl, Sylvia dreamily concocts the friendship he always wanted, casting newcomer Jeremy Dozier as Clark, a sparkly eyed version of himself, and Juno Temple as Danielle, the campus whore whose fabulous authority-bucking is irresistible. But in this process of joining two outcast forces and telling their parallel coming-of-age stories, Sylvia lets the glitter fly like he’s Michael Patrick King Jr., packing in so complete a roster of tacky queer clichés you’d think he somehow knew this would be not just his first feature, but also his last. Contradicting its bad-taste camp with mushy, pushy sentimentality, Dirty Girl covers daddy issues, coming-out grief, loss of virginity, religious oppression, girl power, and Southern bigotry, all while appeasing Sylvia’s need to incorporate three disco-ball stripteases, a whopping 28 pop songs, and whatever else springs from his rainbowy imagination. Call it A Gay Fantasia on Overused Themes.
It at least kicks off as advertised, with Danielle stumbling out of the backseat of a boy’s car, then strutting across the schoolyard while offering twangy, vagina-monologue-y narration: “I’ve heard it said that this here’s a man’s world, and some girls believe it, but they don’t know that they’ve got the power.” Considering how the film unfolds, the intro is really just part of Sylvia’s character idolization, and to their credit, he and editor Jonathan Lucas certainly know how to make the most of Temple’s commanding sexuality, which the 22-year-old actress boldly owns despite running the risk of boxing in her talents (she already bared all this year in Gregg Araki’s Kaboom). Sylvia’s camera surveys every detail of Danielle’s head-to-toe look, from her lace-up wedges to her feathered hair to her Mary-Kate-and-Ashley shades, and Lucas’s snappy cuts nimbly take us from her eyes to her parking-lot prey and back again, with interludes pausing on her teeth removing a cigarette from its pack. For pure provocation, the stylish ogling beats Danielle’s potty-mouth platitudes, which land her in a special-ed class that doubles as a dumping ground for minorities. It’s there that she meets Clark, a huddled-beneath-his-hoodie recluse who gets paired up with her for a parental-responsibility project (instead of a baby doll, they’re given a five-pound bag of flour to care for). Tossing some clumsily hurtful, un-PC jabs his way (“You’re that fag, right?”), Danielle rejects Clark’s friendship before embracing him in the usual ways, reveling in being his beard and turning to him when there’s no one else to join her on a road trip to find her estranged dad.
With his focus on paternal abandonment, it’s safe to assume Sylvia wasn’t accepted by his own father, and it may also be safe to assume his father could carry a bluegrass tune, as the director casts not one, but two country singers in deadbeat-dad roles. A bedraggled Dwight Yoakam plays Clark’s homophobic pops, who terrifies his submissive wife (Mary Steenburgen) and goes ballistic when she finds beefcake pinup shots taped above Clark’s bed. Danielle’s dad, whom we’re meant to believe she’s been chasing with every void-filling conquest, is also played by a certain Nashville chart-topper, who boasts one of few true accents in a cast that also includes Milla Jovovich (as Danielle’s mother, Sue-Ann) and William H. Macy (as Sue-Ann’s Mormon fiancé). The casting may also simply reflect Sylvia’s overwhelming music obsession, which asserts itself the second the film begins with the blaring of Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night.” The subsequent 89 minutes contain a massive sampling of ’80s standards, and though they’re well-synced with Lucas’s edits, they basically amount to a whole lot of silliness. More than anything, playing “Elvira” and “I Want Candy” and “Lovergirl” back-to-back-to-back suggests that Sylvia’s self-indulgence is matched by a lack of confidence in establishing his period. And while that Michael Patrick King comparison needs no reinforcement, it’s worth mentioning that a final-act duet to Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud” is the most cringe-worthy bit of filmed crooning since “I Am Woman” in Sex and the City 2.
Dirty Girl isn’t without fun or affecting moments (it’s bound to net some fans during its inevitable late-night rotation on LOGO), but it’s way too scattershot for anything to stick. A movie about the flowering of identities that never finds its own, it hasn’t a clue what to do with its good intentions, shifting willy-nilly from John Waters Lite to ultra-earnest message film. However unplanned, the only thing that seems aware of the toggling tone is that sack of flour in Danielle and Clark’s care, an odd narrative device that acts as a fantastical mood ring, its drawn-on expression magically changing in response to the action at hand. Along for the entire road trip and subjected to every peak and valley, the sack emerges as a sympathetic, metaphorical punching bag. Given his movie’s indiscriminate, incongruous mix, it’s a wonder Sylvia didn’t just make it a kitchen sink.