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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 21, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 42
Juno Temple dazzles in uneven Dirty Girl
Arts & Entertainment
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Juno Temple dazzles in uneven Dirty Girl

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

At Norman High School, deep in the heart of Oklahoma, Danielle (Juno Temple) is the requisite 'dirty girl.' She knows what she wants and she thinks she knows how to get it, and while her fellow students call her a slut, the teachers look at her as an annoyance, and her mother Sue-Ann (Milla Jovovich) is beside herself trying to keep the girl in check, this 16-year-old knows she's destined for better things than this.

And that destiny starts today. When Danielle discovers Sue-Ann is intent on marrying devout Mormon Ray (William H. Macy), a man many years her senior, she decides to set out on a road trip to find the real father she never had the opportunity to know. Discovering his identity, she ropes in fellow social outcast Clarke (Jeremy Dozier), an in-the-closet Gay boy whose homophobic father (Dwight Yoakam) enjoys using him as a punching bag, to help drive her to California. With Sue-Ann and Clarke's beleaguered mom Peggy (Mary Steenburgen) in pursuit, the unlikely pair begins to form something akin to a friendship, and as the miles pass both teens mature and evolve in ways that will change their respective lives forever.

Dirty Girl doesn't do anything new. One part Harold and Maude, one part Flirting with Disaster, with helpings of Louis Malle, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, and Glee thrown in for good measure, the film is a hodgepodge of road movie clich├ęs scored to its own happily idiosyncratic beat. I never felt like I didn't know where it was heading and I was certain of the outcome, the lack of surprises keeping my enthusiasm for the picture somewhat in check.

Yet, for me at least, enthusiasm for bits and pieces is still there. Writer and director Abe Sylvia doesn't shy away from taking risks, doing his best to see things exclusively through the eyes of Danielle and Clarke, and letting their somewhat limited worldview blossom tenfold as their journey spirals out of control. He taps into what being a teenager is all about, especially a teen who feels out of step with the rest of society, out of touch with the way their peers are telling them things should be. The story only increases in resonance because of it.

It also helps that Temple is sensational as the titular heroine. She makes Danielle a force of nature, reveling in her insecurities, digging full-bore into her pugnacious feminine ferocity, willing herself to inhabit the quirky, idiosyncratic teen down to her core, warts and all. This is a fearless performance but one that doesn't forget to be genuine and real. Danielle's emotional transformation is stirring, oftentimes powerful, and difficult to forget.

The movie loses its way whenever it focuses on the two moms. As good as both Jovovich (an underrated actress who deserves more opportunities like the one afforded her here) and Steenburgen are, this isn't their story and every time Sylvia looked in their direction my interest began to wane. Additionally, the frequent flights of fancy the film takes don't always work very well. One in particular, regarding Clarke's losing his virginity, calls far too much attention to itself and feels spectacularly out of place.

Still, for all its faults, Dirty Girl kept me moderately entertained. I felt Danielle and Clarke's friendship was delicately handled, I adored a repeated gag involving a bag of flour masquerading as an infant, and I thought the conversation between our heroine and her birth father was extremely well done. Heck, I even bought the overly saccharine musical number the film goes out on. While far from perfect, the movie made me think about my own high school days in a way I hadn't in ages, and as such I related to Danielle, Clarke, and their respective tales far more intimately than I would have otherwise.

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