Dirty Girl - Juno Temple
Danielle (Juno Temple), the dirty girl of Norman High School in Norman, Oklahoma, circa 1987 © 2011 Weinstein

Dirty Girl looks so much like a long-lost low-budget relic from the big-hair power-ballad ’80s it even has a Kelly Bundy clone. As bitchy blond bad girl Danielle, Juno Temple channels Married With Children actress Christina Applegate right down to her Reagan-red lipstick.

The plot seems just as vintage, a John-Hughes-on-the-cheap odd couple outing that pairs snotty high school slut Danielle with introverted overweight gay virgin Clarke (Jeremy Dozier). Somehow, you just know those two are going to be crying in each other’s arms before the credits roll.

Clarke’s abusive dad Joseph (Dwight Yoakam) is delusional enough to believe his son might have enough hetero hidden inside to go straight, even though Clarke tells him his favorite kind of breasts are the ones that are “hairy.” Threats about being sent to military school ensue.

At the other end of the sexuality spectrum, Danielle is the type of girl who has shock-absorber-straining intimate relations in her high school parking lot but makes no apologies for her bad reputation. “If the girl’s on top,” she asks in voiceover narration, “who’s the one getting screwed?”

Dirty Girl - Juno Temple and Jeremy Dozier
Danielle (Juno Temple) is paired on a parenting project with Clarke (Jeremy Dozier) © 2011 Weinstein

Her principal isn’t quite as enlightened. After Danielle makes a joke during a sex-education abstinence lesson, she is transferred to a special education class where Clarke is a student. The teacher there partners the two for a parenting project in which they have to care for a sack of flour as if it is their baby for several weeks. That “flour child” with a simply drawn face becomes an unexpectedly charming supporting character, silently commenting on events with changing expressions that no one ever notices.

Danielle’s “we look like sisters” single mom Sue-Ann (Milla Jovovich) has transformed into a no-fun Suzie Homemaker now that she has a Flanders-like Mormon boyfriend (William H Macy). Clarke’s already miserable home life goes to hell after his parents discover his gay porn stash. That makes it the perfect time to take a runaway road trip in Joseph’s beloved Cadillac to find Danielle’s biological father in Fresno.

First-time director Abe Sylvia, a former Broadway dancer and choreographer who also wrote the movie’s screenplay, updates the ’80s high-school misfits template by putting a heavy emphasis on Clarke’s coming-out process. Although early scenes in which Danielle pretends to be closeted Clarke’s girlfriend are reminiscent of Easy A, that pretense quickly is dropped. Before long, Clarke is getting a private show from a male “erotic dancer,” taking part in an amateur strip contest at a gay bar, and proclaiming his sexual orientation with Daffyd Thomas-like pride.

Dirty Girl lacks professional polish. Parts of it play like a second-tier John Waters flick without that director’s sense of the absurd. But Temple is so strangely endearing as the emotionally confused, distractedly toenail-painting, earnestly Melissa-Manchester singing Danielle that she’s hard not to like. Also, the movie takes a dramatic shift near the end that’s odd but not entirely unwelcome, giving Temple the chance to show Danielle’s unexpected vulnerability.

Near the beginning of the movie, Danielle’s principal advises her against remaining on the path she has taken by warning her that “nobody likes a dirty girl.” Which just goes to show how little he knows.

[Rating:3 stars]

Dirty Girl opens in theaters on Friday October 7, 2011

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.