Despite a substantial effort to integrate gays into mainstream America, anti-homosexual violence continues for those who don't conform to this country's far too conservative mores. Though it's hard to believe that it continues, bullying still spurs teen suicides in a country charged by Tea Party extremism.
So director Abe Sylvia used his experiences as a gay kid growing up in 1980s Norman, Oklahoma to fashion his debut feature, Dirty Girl, a comedic search for identity and freedom, to illustrate the effect of such abuse and how it stimulates a will to escape.
As the "dirty girl" of Norman High, Danielle (Juno Temple) sluts her way through school but her misbehavior gets her demoted to Special Ed. There she joins up with abused closet-case Clarke (Jeremy Dozier) and they go on an illicit road trip to flee the repression and discover themselves through their unexpected friendship.
After touring the festival circuit (including 2010's Toronto International Film Festival), Dirty Girl has been released this month. The following Q&A is culled from a roundtable with the two leads.
JT: We had to do a lot of research on the music and stuff.
JD: I really hadn't listened to Melissa Manchester but she's this icon for Clarke. So I did a lot of research and watched her on YouTube. I found it fascinating how powerful she was on stage.
I also did research on the time period, the clothes and everything, which was a lot of fun. It was a time when being gay wasn't really talked about so I think that's changed a lot since then, thank God.
We'd walk onto set and everything was decked out in '80s gear. It was so much fun, this different world.
JT: It was like walking into a new world in a puff of smoke.
Q: Did you ask older cast members such as William H. Macy or Milla Jovovich to give you some references?
JT: We're a different generation to them in the movie too. My parents were a big part of the '80s rock scene, so I know quite a lot about that part of the '80s.
This was like a whole new part of the '80s in that we're listening to music you can't help but move your body to.
JD: What was great about working with Abe is that he grew up in that time period and had so many references for us. Movies like The Breakfast Club for us to watch.
JT: We watched some good movies.
JD: The music plays a huge part of the movie, and he knew what songs he was going to play over which scene before we started.
JT: We were given the soundtrack before.
JD: That helped us inform the scenes and get the tone [right].
Q: Your come-on line, "Are those Bugle Boy jeans?" hasn't been heard in years.
JD: That was such a weird line. I shot the entire movie not knowing where it came from. Just last week, Abe posted the commercial on Facebook and I was like, "It all makes sense now."
Q: Any other references from the '80s that you didn't know about?
JT: There was a line that was cut out where Clarke says to Danielle, "Let's sing 'Don't Cry Out Loud,'" and I'm like, "I'm more of a White Snake girl."
That was the kind of vibe that Danielle is more into, like hair metal. The thing I loved about her was that she was kind of '70s in this '80s world.
She got all her mum's hand-me-downs, these little rompers and fur coats and '70s platform heels. She looks like even more of a misfit. She doesn't get so '80s until the end, with the polo neck and the camel toe shorts.
it's so much Abe's world -- based on his childhood story. He wrote the bible for us because he knows it better than anybody else. [He‛s] a man you trust so dearly that he opens your eyes to this whole new world and you become lost in it. [We spent] a lot of time talking with Abe.
I grew up having a vivid imagination. So when a director has this incredible vision that he's giving to you, it's like walking through the Narnia closet, like going through a new doorway.
Even before we got on set, we did dance and singing rehearsals. We grew up going out dancing, but it's like you just wriggle a bit -- you don't have proper dance routines. So you get there and are learning how to do all these crazy moves that you haven't seen since an '80s music video.
That was so fun, taking you to a new part of your brain that you haven't really ever accessed before.
Q: How would you describe this film's tone?
JD: Like a roller coaster with really emotional scenes and comedy scenes, so there's something for everybody -- singing, dancing, and a lot of issues that are pertinent today.
Though it's set in the '80s, it is so important today, especially in today's climate with all the gay teen suicides, learning to love yourself and coming into your own and figuring out who you are -- it's a great message movie.
JT: It's "don't judge a book by its cover" -- that's the best thing you can tell people, because it's the worst thing you can possibly do. You miss out on so much when you just judge someone by their cover.
Q: It's hard to believe that after all this time, there are still teen suicides because people hassle others for being gay.
JT: It's ridiculous to be quite honest with you. We still haven't found out a way to be okay with letting people be what they want to be. It's part of the reason why you get angry.
But whatever happens in high school there's going to be something that someone's going to get bullied about -- like the size of someone's nostrils or whether they have a weird toenail on their big toe.
People do the weirdest stuff to destroy children's lives. That's why I think this is such a great message, because it's really like, "look beyond that."
When you first meet Clarke and Danielle, you wouldn't picture them being best friends at all. It's this weird chemistry that just explodes. Because actually, for the first time, they meet someone [who] wants to listen to them. They meet someone who wants to be around them, who thinks they're so great for who they are, and to entice that out of them.
That's something that people should look for in high school. If you don't get on with everybody, you don't get on with everybody -- you're not going to. But when you find the people that really get you and just love you for who you are, then everything kind of figures itself out and falls into place. I think that's such a good message to send.
JD: It's crazy. We've made a lot of progress, but there's a lot more to go. Bullying ultimately comes out of ignorance.
JT: And jealousy.
Q: It‛s amazing how people in school type each other and then suddenly a year later will be best friends because they have more in common.
JD: It's the message of this story too, about becoming who you want to be versus what you're labeled in school. That's exactly what happening here over the course of the film.
JT: Life's much bigger than that.
For an extended version of this story and others by Brad Balfour go to: Film Festival Traveler.
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