Chief Justice Michael Stailey has a hard time picturing Milla Jovovich as a Mormon.
"Excuse me, are those Bugle Boy jeans you're wearing?"
Part comedy, part dramatic character study, part coming-of-age road trip, Dirty Girl is Abe Sylvia's visual yearbook for Oklahoma life in the late '80s infused with queer cinema sensibilities.
Facts of the Case
Norman, Oklahoma 1987. Norman East High School's resident slut, Danielle (Juno Temple, Kaboom), has discovered the power of her sexuality far sooner than her peers. While the boys don't seem to mind, it doesn't sit too well with the school's straight-laced administrators, who banish her to life with "The Challengers"—a classroom for the socially challenged and developmentally delayed. Partnered with Clarke (Jeremy Dozier, iCarly)—who's only 65% gay—the two are forced to raise a bag of flour as a child of their own and document its development for the class. Little do they realize it's their own growth that will prove most challenging.
I'm continually intrigued by films whose hearts are in the right place but can't seem to pull it all together. Great filmmakers make it all look so easy, but even a script as celebrated as Dirty Girl was during development needs a special kind of magic to captivate an audience. Sadly, Abe Sylvia's directorial feature debut doesn't have enough of it.
Dirty Girl wants to play on the same level as Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Virgin Suicides, and Almost Famous. Charismatic but flawed lead character takes awkward underdeveloped sidekick under their wing, as they challenge the status quo with righteous indignation and learn valuable lessons in the process. Filtering that premise through an indie queer lens should prove a compelling watch, but the film only manages to hit that sweet spot on a few occasions. Everything in between feels like off-the-shelf allusions to better films.
You can't fault the performers, since everyone seems to be buying into this odd universe lock, stock, and barrel. Juno Temple's Danielle—rebellious daughter of a single mom doomed to follow the same path in life—uses her I-don't-give-a-shit confidence to get what she wants, while also sheltering a fractured child behind that same facade. Armed with looks, charm, a foul mouth, and a wealth of sincerity, we will most assuredly be seeing more from this UK-born twentysomething. Relative newcomer Jeremy Dozier holds his own with a more seasoned scene partner, giving us a Clarke who unfolds like an origami swan to reveal a character we can all empathize with. Theirs is an unconventional, non-romantic love story that both touches and inspires.
On the adult front, Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil: Afterlife) and William H. Macy (Shameless) play parents to Danielle, while Mary Steenburgen (The Help) and Dwight Yoakam (Sling Blade) play parents to Clarke, both couples delivering a strange mix of wacky comedy and heartfelt drama that by all rights shouldn't work, and yet somehow does. Also look for a touching small role by Tim McGraw (The Blind Side) and a cast of widely recognizable character actors (Gary Grubbs, Jonathan Slavin, Brent Briscoe, Deborah Theaker, and fellow Buffalo Grove High School grad Pat Healy) who each get a moment to shine.
The frustrating thing about Dirty Girl is that even with a handful of great moments, the overall experience leaves its audience frustrated and flat. Does time operate differently in Oklahoma? I lived in Iowa during the late '80s and this cinematic universe plays more like 1978 than 1987—CB radios, Melissa Manchester, The Oak Ridge Boys, Modeling the looks of Jovovich and Steenburgen on Barbara Mandrell and Rosalynn Carter. (FYI: Sambos restaurants went out of business in 1982). If you're going to take a Savage Steve Holland approach to Danielle and Clarke's flour child, don't half-ass it; extend that magic to the entire film. The oh-my-god-it's-a-gay-bar moment has been played to death. And for pete's sake the world doesn't need another Dirty Dancing finale.
Shot in 21 days on a limited budget, Sylvia's team is to be commended for pulling this picture together the way they did. You wouldn't know it was shot on location in California and certainly can't find fault with the production values. Presented in standard definition 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen (modified from its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio), the visuals give a classic cinematic vibe with diffused lighting and a surprising depth of field, its digital intermediate clearing the image of any heavy film grain. The color palette is vintage '70s, heavy with oranges, creams, and browns. No obvious digital tampering with the look of its Super 16mm source stock. Don't expect anything exciting from the Dolby 5.1 Surround mix. It's a dialogue heavy film underscored by an unique mix of pop music and a haunting underscore from composer/orchestrator Jeff Toyne (Battle: Los Angeles).
Despite a wealth of cast interviews offered up during the film's brief theatrical run (see the link to Verdict's YouTube channel in the sidebar), Anchor Bay's DVD only offers up two bonus features…
• Commentary—Writer/Director Abe Sylvia flies solo discussing his feature directorial experience, the film's two-act Broadway story structure, a wealth of behind-the-scenes insights, and more than few extended silences between thoughts.
• Extended/Deleted Scenes (8 min)—Including an excised scene with Brian Baumgartner (Kevin from The Office).
For a first time out with limited resources, Abe Sylvia delivers an adventure that hits just wide of the mark. For anyone who appreciates smaller more intimate tales, Dirty Girl is worth seeking out as a rental or streaming. You'll no doubt look forward to seeing more from Sylvia, Juno Temple, and Jeremy Dozier as much as I do.
Not guilty, for giving the fat boy the love scene he deserves.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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