Director: Abe Sylvia
Screenwriter: Abe Sylvia
Length: 1h 30m
Synopsis: The year is 1987. Danielle (Temple) is a high schooler in Norman, OK with a reputation as a “dirty girl,” and it’s not unfounded. As a real man eater she gets around, but does have intolerances for rapscallion-like behavior. Concerned for her wellbeing the school places her in special education classes as motivation to change her ways, and while she’s there she gets partnered up with another social exile named Clarke (Dozier), whose only commonly known attribute is his homosexual orientation. Together they’re given a project which demands that they parent a bag of flour like a baby, forcing them to spend time together outside of school. As they work on their project they begin bonding over their mutual exclusion. Danielle, after newly discovering the identity of her biological father, takes advantage of this new bond by roping Clarke into a road trip to see him. At the same time, Clarke is running away from a father (Yoakam) who has reached the tolerance limit for his gayness. The two runaways’ journey starts off awkwardly enough, but coming back after what they experience will be the real challenge.
Analysis: During our first encounters with her, Danielle does little to ingratiate herself with us. She’s rude to her fellow students, disrespectful to her kind mother (Jovovich), and dismissive of the stepfamily her mother is trying to welcome her into. She comes across not as genuinely mean, but certainly bitter. By contrast, Clarke is quiet, reserved, afraid of offending his parents, and content to live in his own little world. His tolerance of his father’s prejudice affords him our respect, while Danielle’s rebelliousness initially seems bratty and unfounded. Her sexual liberality masquerades as feminism in action, but it’s obvious from the start that this is just an excuse. Her motivations aren’t without depth, but our lack of understanding demands that we spend more time with her. And as we do, the main message of the film (sort of) comes to light, providing us with at least a few answers.
The story of Dirty Girl is an attempt to mix the coming-of-age and education genres, wherein its title character matures in how she learns to appreciate those around her and discovers a more positive perspective of herself and the world. Clarke, on the other hand, does not go through any kind of significant transformation – at least comparatively. His orientation is the cause of his biggest troubles, but at no point does he deny it with any seriousness. His only change comes simply from being more open about who he is, no longer letting the shame felt by his father cause any pent up guilt in him. Both central characters end up getting a whole new lease on life, but Danielle’s journey doesn’t just break her out of a shell, it redefines her.
Along their journey the two outcasts bond over their shared position on the outskirts of propriety. However, it is always clear that Clarke accepts who Danielle is more fully than she accepts him. She receives no sincere tongue lashings for being promiscuous, while he often finds himself the butt of derogatory gay stereotyping. If it were not for Clarke’s intense fear of his father it would be hard to comprehend how he could stand continuing on in her company – initially. Danielle’s behavior, however, is excused by the film, using the daddy issues she so plainly discloses as justification for her surliness. We recognize this to be unfair the whole time, and because of this imbalance one might potentially find him/herself more invested in Clarke. In this way writer/director Abe Sylvia plays with fire, but thankfully that fire never really becomes wild. Those who suspect that Danielle’s jabs are mostly hollow turn out to be right, and for those who lost stock in her story the emotional climax she eventually endures should put her in good favor.
Sylvia rolls the dice with a particular visual gag that reoccurs throughout the film which involves the “baby” (bag of flour) Danielle and Clarke are asked to take care of for a class project. Intended to add charm to a movie that would have little if not for the catchy soundtrack, the gag tries to lighten the mood for an inherently heavy tale. The motivation behind it is understandable, but it never quite fits. During lulls in the drama it’s fine, but it is also involved in moments of heightened emotional tension, and in these serious moments it works to undermine the tone the film has worked so hard to create. Such details indicate ambivalence between a commitment to serious drama and a desire for lightened, more comedic fare. Levity is seldom warranted with the former, and since nearly every other aspect of the movie points toward this aim the gag fits in like Tim Gunn at an NRA meeting.
As luck would have it, what is waiting for Danielle at the end of her rainbow turns out to not be what she was looking for. She expected to find a father who would shower her with love and apologies and offer her a chance to leave the life she knew behind. In a way, her experience does allow her to abandon the self she knew. Forced to face her daddy issues head on, Danielle realizes how much of herself was defined by them. As a way of letting go of the fantasy of living happily henceforth with her biological father she reforms herself, deciding, as way of showing this, to favor a more conservative wardrobe and respectful temperament. This of course makes her family and school principal very happy, but what exactly does this transformation signify? Was the void left by her real father filled by something else? Did she recognize what she was filling it with and instead decide to leave it vacant? Many questions are left unanswered about Danielle’s state of mind, which arguably prompts us to consider her as more of a figure than a full-fledged character.
As it is, her redefinition is not without a little irony. Danielle’s mother, stepfather, teachers, and school principal all implored her to change her ways and become more socially acceptable – and that’s exactly what she does. So does the film endorse conformity, officially celebrating chastity and condemning promiscuity? Or perhaps facing the unhappy truth about her reality allowed her to accept the world for what it is, thereby also allowing her to finally begin growing as a person? For maturation tales such as this ambiguity is not necessarily undesirable, but it should at least be narrowed. Here it borders on abstractness, which prevents any resolution from nearing tangibility. So as coming-of-age stories go, Dirty Girl is conclusively incomplete.