"Elvira" by The Oak Ridge Boys was a hit in 1981. Pat Benatar's "Shadows of the Night" came out in 1982. "Lovergirl" was a hugely popular song for Teena Marie in 1985. And "I Can't Wait" by Nu Shooz was all over the radio in 1986.
Why does this matter? Because these are among the many songs that appear prominently in "Dirty Girl," which is set in 1987. Yes, we're being nitpicky, but the soundtrack calls such attention to itself — and is so distractingly off in a movie that's trying to capture an exact moment in time — that it's a reflection of how scattershot the film is as a whole.
Given that first-time writer-director Abe Sylvia is a former Broadway dancer and choreographer, and that he cast not one but two country superstars in crucial supporting roles, music is obviously very important to him. Sylvia does infuse his film with a flamboyantly cheeky theatricality, from the opening titles to the obligatory road-trip sing-along. The heavy eye shadow, cheesy clothes and stiffly flipped-out hair feel almost too mocking, though, rather than serving as stylistic choices that make the characters feel like real people.
But this vibe contrasts jarringly with the film's more earnest coming-of-age moments, as two teenage misfits find confidence in their unexpected new friendship.
Juno Temple seems game for anything, though, in the title role. And after watching her stand out in supporting roles in films including "Atonement" and "Kaboom," it's a joy to see her seize on a lead part with such confidence. She plays Danielle, the most notoriously promiscuous student at her Norman, Okla., high school, whose rebellious ways land her in a remedial class. There, she's forced to team up on a parenting project with the chubby, closeted Clarke (newcomer Jeremy Dozier).
Turns out both have daddy issues — she never knew hers, he's suffered a lifetime of bullying from his (played by Dwight Yoakam) — which prompts them to hop in a car and drive to Fresno, Calif. This is where Danielle thinks her father now lives, and she longs to meet him, even though her trashy, trailer-dwelling mother (Milla Jovovich) told her that the man walked out on them long ago and never looked back. She'd rather build a new life with a kind but much-older Mormon (played by a weirdly rigid William H. Macy).
Their road trip is filled with cliches of the genre: singing along to the radio, meeting a life-altering drifter, running out of gas. Sylvia plays it all for glib laughs, with Danielle getting by on charm and bravado while Clarke clings to romantic notions of what his life should be like — complete with a Melissa Manchester soundtrack. (Calling the film's talent-show finale cringeworthy doesn't even begin to describe it.)
That's why it's so surprising when "Dirty Girl" reaches its climactic confrontation in California. It's surprisingly affecting, and is packed with such emotional honesty that you wish Sylvia hadn't stored it all up for the very end.
"Dirty Girl," a Weinstein Co. release, is rated R for sexual content including graphic nudity, and for language. Running time: 89 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.