Directed by Abe Sylvia
At first, Danielle (Juno Temple) is wary of Clarke (Jeremy Dozier), her classmate and partner for the old bag-of-flour parenting project after she's thrown into their high school's "Challengers" program, sort of a catch-all for anyone troubled, isolated, or different in any way. Clarke is there for being a barely-closeted homosexual; Danielle, for her general mouthy trampiness. Living in Norman, Oklahoma in the late 1980s, it takes her a little while to realize that she could, in fact, make use of a gay best friend. Writer-director Abe Slyvia, of course, has probably seen any number of romantic comedies made since 1987, and does them one better: he makes Dirty Girl into a buddy comedy between a straight teenage female and a gay teenage male.
It's an idea so simple that it takes a pause to realize that it's not really a cliché yet —at least not in a movie where the gay guy gets to be more than an accessory. Granted, Clarke has a strategic function for both Danielle and the movie—he's able to abscond with his parents' car and credit card, taking Danielle on a road trip from Oklahoma to California to locate the father she's never known, emotive sack of flour in tow—but Sylvia expertly times their tenuous friendship to Danielle's softening heart. Both processes are helped by a lot of potential gay guy/straight gal relationship boilerplate—sing-alongs to 80s hits, occasional low-budget music-video flourishes—but Temple and Dozier make it more fun than calculated. Temple looks like a stretched-out cartoon of Ellen Page and shares a first name with Page's most famous character; her white-trash-Juno routine meshes nicely with first-time actor Dozier, playing Clarke as a kid slowly realizing that his true nature may not have to render him a confused outcast.
The movie's best moments are bunched in the middle, with Danielle and Clarke bickering and bonding. Before and after, Sylvia undermines the film's buddy-comedy strengths. The first fifteen minutes take so many broad, easy potshots at humorless school officials and pious Mormons (William H. Macy plays Danielle's religious would-be stepfather) that Norman ceases to feel like a real, specific place; it's just a stand-in for any close-minded backwoods high school. Later on, the final half-hour takes a maudlin turn as Danielle's quest winds down; the emotions are genuine, and well-played by Temple, but Sylvia goes overboard on the big emotional epiphanies, serving up four or five when two would do. He also smothers some of his stars, including Milla Jovovich (making a convincing young-mother-and-daughter duo with Temple) and Mary Steenburgen (as Clarke's protective mother, married to a brute played by Dwight Yoakam), with too many close-ups, nudging the movie too close to tear-soaked camp. But in the tart center of Dirty Girl, the adults are easy to ignore; Temple and Dozier do just fine on their own.
Opens October 7