Dirty Girl is a candy-coated collection of ’80s hairstyles, pop tunes and other sparkly flourishes. Despite the best efforts of Juno Temple, who perfects her standard character — the sullen oversexed young woman — it’s a forced, facile effort.
The film takes a premise with promise, in which the titular “dirty girl” (Temple) searches for her long-lost father, and flushes it away in a haze of standard road-trip silliness. It’d be hard to conceive of a movie more painstakingly comprised of dramatic filler than this one, in which nothing of consequence happens until the climax.
Danielle and her shy study buddy Clarke (Jeremy Dozier) take off from Oklahoma for California, in the hope of finding the absentee paterfamilias who knows not of her existence. Both misfits are escaping unfortunate home situations: Danielle’s mom Sue-Anne (Milla Jovovich), a former “dirty girl” herself, wants to settle down with the domineering Mormon Ray (William H. Macy). Clarke has it worse. His father Joseph (Dwight Yoakam) abuses him, sends him to therapy and threatens military school if his son can’t repress his homosexuality.
Absconding with a bag of flower dressed as a baby that’s simultaneously part of a school project and a sort of Greek chorus (don’t ask), the pair encounters the beautiful scenery of the Southwest, a sexy male stripper, an unlikely striptease contest and a backwoods gas station. Simultaneously, Sue-Ann and Clarke’s mother Peggy (Mary Steenburgen) set off to intercept their children on the journey, followed close behind by Joseph, who’s mostly enraged that the teens have dared to steal his Cadillac.
The movie is submerged in an episodic morass, structured as a series of loosely connected, thinly conceived incidents without much of a unifying theme. The road trip is a distraction from the heart of the story, which concerns two kids adrift without parental guidance, and the screenplay strains to find enough momentum to propel it forward.
At the same time, the characters occupy a world defined by the filmmaker’s nostalgic affinity for low-rent pop cultural archetypes from the era. From the absurdly heightened dramatics to the windswept stylistic flourishes, everything is sketched in the broad strokes of an ’80s music video or teen flick. This is a fine conceit if backed with some sort of tangible feeling, the sense that there are real people undergoing a universal experience somewhere beneath the glittery artifice.
That’s missing, even though the stars give it a meaningful shot. As Danielle, Temple hits notes of vulnerability that have been missing from her prior incarnations of the same basic character. There’s a scared, lonely girl buried within the blur of skimpy tops, tight jeans, pink lipstick and aggressive attitude. Dozier, a newcomer, demonstrates easy, unforced charisma.
But they’re at the mercy of a filmmaker who seems most obsessed with evoking period accoutrements and surrounding them with the sort of humor you’d expect from an amateur variety show. This cast deserves better.
The Upside: Juno Temple and Jeremy Dozier make a likable pair
The Downside: The movie drowns in a sea of ’80s artifice
On the Side: This is the debut feature of writer-director Abe Sylvia