As Danielle, the wisecracking school tramp in the new road movie Dirty Girl, Juno Temple literally drives away with the picture.
The year is 1987, and Danielle—who warms up for classes by boffing bad boys in the high-school parking lot—is miserable. She hates her life in small-town Oklahoma, where she lives with her flighty mom (Milla Jovovich) and mom’s new man, a fun-challenged Mormon (William H. Macey). Danielle’s father deserted her mother years earlier; he’s now somewhere in L.A., and Danielle dreams of one day going there to find him.
In her tight jeans and tube tops (“Yeah, I’m that girl”), Danielle is nothing but trouble. When the school principal dumps her in a special-ed class, she bonds with a chubby closeted gay virgin named Clarke (Jeremy Dozier), who’s similarly miserable. Clarke’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) is concerned about her son’s emerging proclivities (she’s found the gay-pornstar posters hidden in his room), but his dad (Dwight Yoakam) is disgusted, and is threatening to consign his loser son to a military academy. Alarmed by this prospect, Clarke steals the family car, and with Danielle behind the wheel they set off for California to find her long-gone father.
First-time feature director Abe Sylvia, a onetime Broadway choreographer, also wrote the script for the film, and says he based the story on his own closeted youth. The movie has a bubbly gay sheen (old Melissa Manchester hits get a lot of love on the soundtrack), but the inarguably hetero Temple is its guiding spirit.
In the traditional road-movie manner, Danielle and Clarke have several colorful adventures on their way to Los Angeles. There’s a rough-and-tumble roadhouse interlude in which Danielle fails to impress the patrons as a stripper (for interesting reasons); and there’s a glowingly romantic sequence involving a hunky hitchhiker (Nicholas D’Gosto), who turns out to be an “erotic dancer” himself—and who gives Clarke his first taste of uncloseted love. Finally, when the misfit duo make it to L.A.—with their respective mothers on their trail—there’s the long-awaited encounter with Danielle’s now-remarried father (movingly played by country-music star Tim McGraw), which takes an unexpected turn.
The supporting cast is rock-solid (Steenburgen is the very incarnation of stiff-lipped marital repression, and Jovovich has possibly never given a more affecting comic performance). But it’s the two leads who own the movie from start to finish. Dozier, who resembles a slightly downscaled Nick Frost, makes his feature-film debut here, and he’s a sweet, cheery winner. And Temple—probably best-known for Atonement, with a substantial part in The Dark Knight Rises coming up—gives a spirited account of a wayward teen who revels in her bad reputation because it’s really all she has.
There’s one scene in the film, keyed to the heartbreak anthem “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” that struck me as rocketing over the top and into the glitter stratosphere. I got over it, though.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin’s Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.