It was surprising to hear earlier today that Abe Sylvia's Dirty Girl had been picked up for distribution by the Weinstein Company, not only because several more significant films (like Robert Redford's The Conspirator) remain homeless, but because the company paid a cool $3 million for the rights. The road trip comedy about a high school skank and an overweight gay kid wasn't all that prominent on anyone's radar, so I felt compelled to catch it at today's press screening and see what all the fuss was about.
Now I know Harvey and Bob Weinstein have championed some bizarre and doomed films over the years, but I cannot fathom why they paid more than a few nickels for Dirty Girl, an incredibly uneven and mean-spirited excuse for a comedy that wears out its welcome long before it veers sharply toward sentimentality in the third act. Up-and-comer Juno Temple works fruitlessly hard as the utterly unlikeable lead character Danielle, a self-proclaimed high school slut who, wouldn't you know it, is just looking for the love of the father she's never known. Not much better is newcomer Jeremy Dozier as Clarke, shy and closeted and not callow like Danielle, but so pathetic and uninteresting that he's almost worse.
Set in the late 80s for no reason other than to deck out Temple in lavish blue eyeshadow, Dirty Girl is one of those movies that asks you to laugh at how stupid or sad or slutty its characters are before flipping it around with an "everyone is worthwhile" message at the end. Danielle and Clarke meet in a Special Ed program foolishly called Challengers ("The Challenger crashed!" Danielle bitchily tells the school principal), where they are assigned as "parents" to a bag of flour as an exercise about parental responsibility. When Danielle decides to take a road trip to meet her father for the first time in Fresno, both Clarke and the bag of flour come along, both as an obvious symbol about the importance of parents and a cutesy icon destined for the poster, changing facial expressions to suit each scene's mood.
Meanwhile Clarke's homophobic jerk of a dad (Dwight Yoakam, of all people) is on their tail, as are Clarke's prim mom (Mary Steenburgen) and Danielle's mom (Milla Jovovich) too. Somewhere back at home is Danielle's Mormon stepdad-to-be (William H. Macy), and waiting at the end of the road is her dad played Tim McGraw, who actually gives one of the film's better performance simply because he doesn't seem to be trying to so damn hard. Everyone else, whether the unconvincingly harsh Temple or the wasted Steenburgen, is marooned in the cliched coming-of-age script, which is peppered with a lot of gay jokes and slut jokes that don't make it edgy but terribly mean. It's one problem that the audience doesn't like any of the characters-- and really, aside from rote moments of "humanity" and "vulnerability," there's nothing to like here-- but Sylvia doesn't seem to care about them all that much either.
Especially with the terrific Easy A playing at the festival, with its open embrace of teen female sexuality and gay identity, Dirty Girl feels particularly out of place, an attempt at being edgy and raw that instead beaches itself on that border between irony and actual storytelling. Far be it from me to underestimate the Weinsteins and the marketing genius, but even with relatively big names on board Dirty Girl is all kinds of a tough sell. If it hadn't already been picked up I would breezily predict you'd never hear from this film again after TIFF, but unfortunately for all of us, it's coming back sooner or later. You've been warned.
More Cinema Blend coverage from the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival right here.