I’m not sure if this next installment is influenced by current events, perhaps its basic coincidence, but I guess that’s another way of saying it was simply meant to be. I recognize that when I watched The Dirties on Sunday night, the timing of seeing it was an important factor but perhaps that is the point. Shot in a found-footage, documentary-like style (be prepared for some very shaky-cam) this festival darling follows two high school students making a home movie about taking down the bullies at their school, Quentin Tarantino style, guns a-blazin’. As the film progresses, one of the young men takes the joke to uncomfortable heights.
I first heard about The Dirties during a Kevin Smith interview in which he also gave a shout-out to Blue is the Warmest Color. I mention this because while these two films are so different in so many ways, they have one very important thing in common that makes them fantastic: as Mr. Smith puts it, the feeling of watching a camera being dipped into real life. Two very different stories, two very different styles, one very overwhelming and sometimes physical response.
In The Dirties, writer/director/editor/producer Matt Johnson stars as Matt alongside his best friend Owen, played by Owen Williams; already reality has become a head-scratcher. The film opens with a purely accidental scene between Matt and two real life passerby kids asking about the movie that’s being filmed. There are scenes in which Matt sits down to edit the very movie we are watching. There are the sudden moments of frighteningly real bullying, the kind that is psychological and paralyzing. Going into watching the film, I knew there was a mixture of real people and actors partaking in the action and it is absolutely impossible to distinguish who or what is real or fake. Sometimes, catalyzing events happen that I felt like I missed because it wasn’t set up in a way that the camera could catch it perfectly, leaving me to wonder if it was staged or not. There is a constant changing of mood and tone; one moment Matt is being his usual zany jokester self and the next he is reading Columbine by Dave Cullen; one of several incredibly brilliant and sobering ways Johnson reminds us of the anchor that holds this whole story in the real world. The never-ending questioning and shifts lead me to feel perpetually unsettled by every person and everything they did, wondering if life is imitating art or vice versa. Who is going to be the one that pushes this narrative over the edge? I felt as though the story was going to betray me, that the harsh truths of bullies and school shooters would end up on my screen in a very unsettling way no matter how bad I wanted everyone to get along. It was a unique feeling I don’t think a film has ever given me before.
The Dirties is a riveting, provocative and bold film made for very little by some very daring people and it brings to light just how bad we can be to each other at our most sensitive and volatile ages. At a time when school shootings are the source of incredibly heart-breaking frustration, The Dirties offers a no-nonsense view on the matter that feels just too damn important.