Norman, Oklahoma, in 1987 is no place to be either an overweight gay teenage boy or a sexually permissive young lady with a come-hither stare and a candy-apple red Mustang. So is it any wonder these two unlikely chums get the hell out of Dodge at the earliest opportunity?
“Dirty Girl” puts us on the road to California with Danielle (Juno Temple) and Clarke (Jeremy Dozier), who meet in the remedial class — she’s been put there as punishment for her provocative ways, while he just has a tendency to tune out of the world around him.
But with bullies clobbering him at school, who can blame him for wanting to put on his Walkman headphones and escape into the songs of Melissa Manchester?
This duo gets assigned to “parent” a bag of flour in one of those pointless high school exercises, but neither has much in the way of role models, what with Danielle’s former bad-girl mom Sue-Ann (Milla Jovovich) trying to fill the dad-shaped void in her daughter’s life by marrying humorless Ray (William H. Macy), while Clarke’s abusive father Joseph (Dwight Yoakam) tries to beat the gay out of his son as mother Peggy (Mary Steenburgen) meekly looks on.
With Ray threatening a squeaky-clean Mormon lifestyle and Joseph talking about military school, the kids flee (with flour bag in tow) to find Danielle’s long-lost dad, whom they’ve tracked down to Fresno. Armed with Joseph’s Cadillac and his credit card, they make their way west where, naturally, lessons are learned, friendships are formed, and families learn what’s really important.
You can pretty much tick off everything that happens along the way, from the picking-up of a handsome hitchhiker (Nicholas D’Agosto as a Vegas-bound stripper, who does a bump-and-grind so sexy that it almost validates the existence of The Outfield’s “Your Love”) to a desperate need for money that culminates in a honky-tonk strip contest (with an admittedly surprising twist).
But even if “Dirty Girl” is formulaic, it’s constantly moving forward, and not just in the geographical sense. Temple (effectively masking her native UK accent) and first-time writer-director Abe Sylvia give Danielle enough layers to keep her from being just another tart with a heart of gold. She’s bristly and vulnerable, cynical and love-starved, bratty and generous, but never less than believable.
Saddled with a far less showy role, Dozier, making his big-screen debut, nonetheless holds his own opposite Temple — the further away Clarke gets from Oklahoma (and from Joseph), the more he flourishes. He doesn’t look like a typical movie lead, and his brand of gay affectation isn’t the cartoonish kind that audiences have gotten used to, but Dozier makes the role feel lived-in.
In the way an inexperienced cake decorator learns to cover mistakes with fondant and florettes, Sylvia patches his movie together with irresistible hits from Pat Benatar and Teena Marie and Belinda Carlisle that rouse the audience and keep the story going even over its roughest patches. It’s a shameless but effective bit of dazzle camouflage that he’ll presumably outgrow as he becomes more experienced.
Ultimately, “Dirty Girl” is a valentine to scared gay boys and the rule-breaking girls who champion them, and to the devoted mothers (Jovovich has never been better) who are there for their kids when dad is a violent louse or nowhere to be found. Danielle’s journey, like Dorothy’s in “The Wizard of Oz,” leads her to a somewhat unspectacular man (Tim McGraw, in a powerful one-scene performance) behind a curtain who nonetheless gives her the wisdom she needs to carry on.
If nothing else, Danielle — like Dorothy before her — learns that long trips are more fun if you can travel with someone who knows all the words to your favorite songs.