The Wolfman recommended The Dirties to me as if I already knew what it was. So, I quickly played it off like I knew what he was talking about so I didn’t seem even more lame than I already seem. (‘oh. naw, dawg. i’ve been too busy doing cool stuff, bro. skateboardsing, sexting and…um…social media?) He said it was like a cross between Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and Elephant. (‘cool, bro. that sounds hella cool. remind me though – what’s Elephant?’) I don’t know about that “elevator pitch” – mostly because I haven’t seen Elephant – but I did like Behind the Mask quite a bit. So, I checked it out.
Matt and Owen are high school friends who are super into movies (and Magic: The Gathering, and videogames, etc.). They are making a film of their own about a couple of detectives who take down a gang of bullies, called “The Dirties” (that’s the title! AND it’s the film-within-a-film’s title too!), at a high school. They play all of the parts and crib a lot of characters/scenes from their favorite movies. Their plot was dreamed up out of their real life frustrations with being bullied by the teen assholes who push them around at school. When their film is received poorly in class, they joke about remaking it with REAL guns and REAL bully killing. Matt starts to obsess over the idea while Owen starts to doubt his friend’s sanity.
Let me get the obligatory complaint about the found footage format out of the way first – it was distracting. I kept wondering who was shooting all of this footage. There are references to the camera operators (there two), and we even see one of their hands when Matt offers popcorn. But we never find out WHY they are shooting everything. (are they making a ‘making of’ “The Dirties” doc as well as shooting “The Dirties”?) Or why/how they never react to what they’re filming. Or why they sometimes shoot furtively from inside of a closet or behind a corner. I felt like this minor problem could have been fixed with just a few lines of dialogue and a shot of the cameraman in a mirror or something. (“this is Jimmy. he’s our other best friend. he NEVER stops recording!) OK. That’s out of the way. This is a really effective film. Director, Matt Johnson, who plays Matt in the film, has created an emotionally scarring, intimate portrayal of a terrifying phenomenon. The audience is sympathetic toward Owen and Matt, whose on-screen friendship is natural and realistic. We despise those bullies and love these geeks. By the time Matt’s planning and fantasizing becomes alarming, we are genuinely surprised. How did it get this far? Why didn’t somebody say something before it was too late? There’s a point where Matt asks his mom if he’s crazy and I was practically shouting at the screen for her to TALK to him. The film made me feel the same way that Targets made me feel. It is heavy. It builds terror through believable, all-too-common real-world horror. The difference is, I didn’t really sympathize with the guy in Targets. I was disturbingly torn between wanting Matt and Owen to follow through on their plans and hoping that they didn’t. This is what pushes this movie from exploitation to serious exploration of an issue. Even through the quipping/reference-laden dialogue and goofy/geeky girl chasing, the boys give us a glimpse into how a school shooting could happen. The media tends to paint the perpetrators as evil or monstrous. Matt and Owen are neither. And that’s what makes the film so powerful (i know that sounds like hyperbole, but it’s true. also – “powerful” makes it sound like a boring drama. it’s not).
The Final Cut: The Dirties humanizes the bullied kids who may end up violently, murderously lashing out at their tormentors. It’s a powerful, intimate movie that may leave viewers exhausted (or depressed).