Championed by Kevin Smith, “The Dirties” is a Canadian film that goes to some bold places. Shot on a shoestring budget by first time director Matt Johnson, it both deals with bullying and school shootings, a tragic epidemic in North America. Amazingly Johnson manages to both say a few things about the art of filmmaking while also offering a glimpse into the mind of a person who ends up feeling like violence is the only answer.
Johnson, who did everything from producing to writing, stars as a pretty average high school kid also called Matt who along with his best friend Owen (Owen Williams) is working on a very personal movie as a school project. Matt and Owen definitely know their stuff since they spend their days referencing everything from “Being John Malkovich” to “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” with a little “Pulp Fiction” spread in there for good measure. We also see they are very good at editing when they manage to insert a girl from school in their movie with a little help from Final Cut. Like most high school boys the one thing they don’t know is how to figure out if said girl likes Owen.
Their movie has them playing two heroes whose goal is to kill a group of bullies they have dubbed The Dirties, who really do make their lives miserable any time they can. Any time one of those Dirties crosses path with Matt or Owen in the hallway they trip them or shove them around for a laugh while other students just walk around, and clearly the teachers are of no help either. Having those bullies killed as part of a fantasy would be very cathartic for the two friends, so when they learn they need to edit their film for content they are dumbstruck.
In a scene Kevin Smith probably identified with, Matt and Owen’s teacher tells them they cannot show a movie filled with profanity and violence to their classmates. Comparing himself to a producer, he says they have shown him their director’s cut, but he wants the PG-13 version. Devastated by the attack on their art, the boys retreat to their basement filled with action figures and movie posters, where Matt jokingly muses about making a movie where they would kill The Dirties for real. Over time Owen begins to see Matt in a different light and wonders if he really is joking.
Of course the movie is shot with hand-held cameras by an unseen camera crew that follows the boys around school, which Matt acknowledges in one scene when he offers popcorn to the cameraman. Even though it is a gimmick that is beyond overused by now it still manages to add a sense of realistic urgency to the story. It is alarming how easy it is for Matt to get his hands on the school’s blueprints, find a cousin with a gun collection, and go do some target practice at a quarry.
Even though this is their first movie, Matt Johnson and Owen Williams are amazing on screen and are very believable as best friends. Their story begins almost as a comedy, then heads into sadness, and ultimately towards tragedy as the lines between reality and fiction begin to blur.
Fiction plays a big role as Matt the character seems to wonder if he is meant to play the role of a high school killer. He buys copies of “Catcher in the Rye” because for some reason it is the book of choice for killers. Reading a book on the Columbine shooters he identifies with them, but then again those guys probably started out as average kids too. Is Matt really a killer or is he just fitting into a role he assumes he has to play because of clichés he has read or seen in movies?
Thought-provoking and mesmerizing, “The Dirties” is a movie that announces the arrival of a new filmmaking talent.
(“The Dirties” is now available on VOD and on limited edition DVD and Blu-Ray.)