September 10, 2013

Kicking Off Noteworthy Reunion Weekend With DIRTY GIRL

"The trick is to dance in your own world.  Let them come to you."
At the start of my sophomore year of college, my roommate's girlfriend Caitlin decided to start an a cappella group.  Considering that Emerson is full of acting and musical theater majors, it was a little surprising that the school didn't already have one (or several) but it seemed that the college had a longstanding tradition of short lived groups that would maybe get through a single performance before disbanding.  My high school had four different groups by the time I graduated but, despite my myriad extra curricular activities, singing was the one thing I never never took up.  So it only makes sense that, other than theater, a cappella would become the only activity I really got involved with in college.  We started out with about 18 members, quickly lost a few and gained a few more, but against all odds the group managed to stay together and put on a few shows each semester.  We even pulled off a few road trips to perform at other schools like Amherst and Syracuse.

The reason we were able to succeed where past groups had failed was a matter of simple chemistry.  We all very quickly bonded and became great friends.  When we weren't rehearsing we hung out between classes and we threw epic parties.  In fact, we always used to joke that we were actually "a drinking group with an a cappella problem."  I'm proud to be an original member and I'm even prouder to watch the group thrive and prosper over the last 10+ years.  While we old folks still see each other for weddings and childbirths, we've also had the chance to get to know the younger generation of Noteworthians by attending the current shows and, more importantly, our annual Reunion.

For the past seven years, Noteworthy members past and present have gathered together in a different location for a long weekend filled with booze, music, bonfires, booze, food, laughter and oh, did I mention booze?  Drinking games are a popular pastime with us, whether it be Beirut, Kings, Quarters or massive games of Flip Cup.  We've managed to invade a number of locales over the years, including the woods of New Jersey, Petaluma CA, Martha's Vineyard, Nashville, and Burlington, VT.  We typically hold Reunion over Memorial Day weekend, which is also the weekend I got married last year.  About a dozen Noteworthy alum came to the wedding and sang a few songs during the ceremony, which made the weekend feel like a sort of mini-Reunion.  The rest of the members stuck around for the school's alumni weekend while Jamie and I were honeymooning in Greece and Egypt.  This year we pushed Reunion to Labor Day weekend and met up in Hartford, CT.  Since it was only a short trip from Boston I offered to drive a car down and invited all the locals to crash at my place the night before so we could get a (vaguely) early start.

Anticipating how the day would turn out, I woke up and knocked out my movie for the day while most people were still sleeping.  I wanted to choose something that was somehow appropriate or related to the weekend's activities.  If I hadn't already seen (and hated) it, the obvious answer would have been the recent Anna Kendrick college a cappella movie Pitch Perfect, but I went another route entirely.  I chose Dirty Girl, an indie about Danielle (Juno Temple), a foul mouthed, promiscuous young girl in Oklahoma in the late 1980's who befriends the overweight gay boy in her class (Jeremy Dozier) and the two soon embark on a road trip to find Danielle's unknown biological father.  Where's the connection to Noteworthy, you ask?  The connection is none other than singer Melissa Manchester.

Shortly after I graduated, the group took in a girl named Hannah.  Hannah was local to L.A. and her folks lived not too far from the apartment I was sharing with two other Noteworthy guys, so when she'd go home for vacations we'd invite her over to to hang with the L.A. alums.  Hannah was very funny and I liked her right away.  It wasn't until much later that someone said to me, "You know her mom is Melissa Manchester?"

To which I replied, "Who's Melissa Manchester?"

"She's a singer from the 80's.  You know Melissa Manchester, she sang 'Don't Cry Out Loud.'"

"I have never listened to or heard of that song before."

This was considered by some to be a totally ludicrous statement.  Apparently 'Don't Cry Out Loud' was a fairly popular song that had managed to totally escape my ear over the years, and I like to think I have a passable familiarity with the music of my youth.  Somehow this one had snuck past me.  I've met Melissa Manchester multiple times and even crashed a July 4th BBQ at her house one year, where I and the other Noteworthy alums were coerced into singing the National Anthem.  Ya know, for 'Merica.  She's a very sweet woman and if one of her songs came on right now I still probably wouldn't know it.

But I remember hearing stories about Dirty Girl from Hannah even before the film was released.  Clarke, Danielle's gay partner-in-crime, is a huge Melissa Manchester fan, and a lot of her music is written into the script, including the final scene in which Temple sings the song at a school talent show.  When writer/director Abe Sylvia went to Manchester to secure the rights to her music, she fell in love with the script and not only allowed them to use her tunes, she even co-wrote (along with star Mary Steenburgen) and performed an original song for the film called 'Rainbird' that ended up on an early list of potential nominees for the Best Original Song Oscar.  Plus, if you're paying attention you can see her playing the piano accompaniment during the talent show.*

It's easy to see why Manchester would be fond of the script.  It's sharp and funny and often feels like a sweet throwback to the great roadtrip and coming of age comedies of the 1980's.  The story of bonding between two misfits on a quest to find themselves is downright adorable, thanks in large part to the two leads, but there's an undercurrent of earnest pathos as the two disillusioned youths attempt to make sense of their own complicated family relationships.  Danielle has a sweet but dim mom (Mila Jovovich) who's jumping headfirst into the goodie-goodie Mormon lifestyle courtesy of her new boyfriend, (William H. Macy grabbing a quick paycheck) leaving Danielle with no hope other than her bio dad to pull her out of the dull world of suburban Oklahoma.  Clarke, meanwhile, has a redneck father (Dwight Yoakam) who's determined to therapy/punch the gay out of him, while his sweet mother (Mary Steenburgen doing some of her best work in recent memory) tries to quietly love and protect her son from her asshole husband.

But it's the two leads who really carry this movie and they do it with aplomb.  Juno Temple is an actress that Hollywood has been in love with for years now and I'll admit that I've never really seen the appeal.  She's always had an odd, otherworldly quality that's been well utilized for characters like Dottie in the fantastic Killer Joe, but made her seem unconvincing as a normal human person.  But this is the movie that turned me around.  Danielle is both wildly immature and wise beyond her years at the same time; she's more than capable handling herself in the big bad world, but Temple gives the teen such a wounded quality that you can't help but want to put your arm around her shoulders and take her in, even if she will probably bite your hand off in retaliation.  Danielle may be the driving force of action, but it's Clarke who's the real heart of the movie.  A sweet boy who's hit with the teenage double whammy of being both fat and gay, Clarke wants nothing more than to feel he warm embrace of love and acceptance, whether it be from his parents, a lover or a true blue friend.  He and Danielle make a fantastic odd couple; Clarke echoes the gooey emotional center that she hides beneath her chain smoking, in-your-face attitude and Danielle coaxes him out from underneath his ubiquitous orange hoodie and instills a sense of confidence and style in the initially sullen introvert.  Dozier is marvelous in the role, creating a nuanced, complete character instead of the broad gay caricature that I've grown so weary of in these kinds of movies.  Clarke feels like a real guy who actually would have existed back then, who's all gruff and silent in public but when he closes the door to his room he can sing and dance along to Melissa Manchester in his own spectacular dream world.  I'm astounded that Dozier hasn't found more work in the years since.

It was an easy drive down to Connecticut, where we met up with about a dozen or so members of Noteworthy at a large house in the middle of the woods without a neighbor anywhere in sight, a.k.a the ideal Reunion environment.  It was actually a relatively small group compared to some years past, but there were folks there that I hadn't seen in a few years so there was plenty of reminiscing and catching up to do.  I took up my customary post at the grill that afternoon and before helping to spearhead a campfire brigade as the sun went down.  Warren and I went on an epic Beirut winning streak before the night gave way to Flip Cup and s'mores, a late night garlic bread bake-off and lots and lots of alcohol.  I curled up on a couch around 2:30 in the morning and drifted off to sleep with whiskey and garlic on my breath and a big shit eating grin on my face.

Reunion is the best.


*This is all my recollection of how the events were explained to me.  It may not have gone down in exactly that manner, but either way it's the story that was in my mind when I decided to watch the film, for whatever that's worth.

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Title: Dirty Girl
Director: Abe Sylvia
Starring: Juno Temple, Jeremy Dozier, Mila Jovovich, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, William H. Macy, Tim McGraw
Year Of Release: 2010
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (Laptop)