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Dirty Girl: A Grown-up, Very Good Choice

10/12/2011 02:19 pm ET | Updated Dec 12, 2011
  • Laurel Kaufer Social Entrepreneur, Attorney, Mediator, Public Policy and Community Advocate

Far from meeting expectations of the family drama, teen angst, bad girl, coming of age, "coming out" genres and giving us what we think we will get, Dirty Girl plays with and defies those expectations, leaving viewers with the grown-up obligation of actually thinking it through, even questioning the complacency of accepting what we, as audiences, are fed.

This movie is jagged and erratic, perhaps not quite jagged enough in peeling away the layers. As it tests the limits, it feels ragingly hormonal, the way a teenager feels... confused, searching, happy, sad, uncomfortable and comfortable, all at the same time. The constant shifts reflect the world through the eyes of a teenager trying to figure out his place in this mad world, usually completely misunderstood.

Our cynicism allows us to be so easily led to the early expectation that this movie will live up to its title, beginning with the rocking of a car in a school parking lot and all that implies. In truth, Dirty Girl, a movie not about the girl at all, belies the true nature of its title and, as it turns out, though not without its flaws, is sweet, loving and affectionate -- a "vulgar valentine" -- even with its filthy mouth the film has an open heart.

Ridiculous as it seems in its context, the teacher's first line, "who can give me an example of a good choice?" is the eternal question of the movie.

At its core, Dirty Girl is not about two misfit teens on a road trip, but all of the choices we make that add up to who we become. The "road trip" of this movie is not Danielle (Juno Temple) and Clarke (newcomer Jeremy Dozier) driving from Oklahoma to California. The real "road trip" is the journey, for every character in this movie... those who make the journey, those who don't and those who are afraid of others in their lives doing so.

Specifically, Dirty Girl focuses on two dysfunctional families that make the audience uncomfortable. So much so, in fact, that it's a huge relief when Clarke, finally having had enough, steals his dad's prized Cadillac, and joins Danielle in her quest to find her "father." This moment, like many in the film, is a juxtaposition of opposites. One of them, running away from a father he knows all too well, the other running to one she has never known at all, but both of them with fathers who don't know them in the least. It raises questions as to the very definition of family. Is it that group we are born into? Is it those we choose to share our lives with? Is it those who choose us? Is it some combination of the two?

Do parents ever feel like they are doing the right thing by their child? Do children have a right to question that? This is the tug in both having and being a teenager. The parents in this film are constantly failing their children and themselves, but in doing so perhaps they are actually succeeding, if accidentally, in helping their children grow. Those parents (not surprisingly, the mothers, Mary Steenburgen and Milla Jovovich) who are eventually willing to embrace the growth of their children, rather than force them to fit into the portraits created to define them, also grow into themselves, leaving them and their children with a deeper understanding of who each of them are, who they love, who loves them and their places in the world.

The characters are silly, flawed and human... most (with the notable exception of Clarke's father, Dwight Yoakam, who gives a real and frightening dose of crazy humanity), ultimately understandable, even as their behavior makes us squirm.

The soundtrack, anchored strongly by the 80's hits of Melissa Manchester (who makes a cameo appearance and wrote the new song "Rainbird" for this movie), is a choice that feels less a soundtrack than a part of the story. Her music never apologizes for its openhearted sincerity -- and though direct expressions of love may not always be acceptable, in the end it is the only thing that matters, and what brings these characters to the core of their humanity.

Despite the humorous, but unnecessary, emotional barometer of Joan, the flour bag baby, the best thing about this film is the very mature and unique assumption made by first-time director/writer Abe Sylvia, that audiences are not infants who need to be spoon-fed with pre-digested formulas, but grown-ups who are capable of independent thought and for whom questions may be better than answers.

This teenage dynamic duo, an empowered girl from the trailer park and an empowered gay boy, may get in the way of Dirty Girl being embraced by those uncomfortable with either concept, but for the rest of us, this film answers it's own question. It is the perfect example of a "good choice" for everyone, and the movie of the year for all of Lady Gaga's "Little Monsters" and anyone who loves one of them!

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