The Dirties (2013)
Director: Matt Johnson
Cinematographer: Jared Raab
Writer: Matt Johnson & Evan Morgan
by Jon Cvack
I heard about The Dirties on Bret Easton Ellis’s podcast with Kevin Smith. Smith had promoted the film through the Kevin Smith Film Club. He was blown away by what the young filmmakers had accomplished through their meta narrative about two high school students who’re making a movie for a class called The Dirties that’s about killing their classmates, particularly the bullies who bully them in real life (in real life in the movie; not in actual real life), only for one of the students to eventually snap and actually shoot up the school in the end. For anyone that’s been passionate about movies in high school, making films with their buddies and dealing with extreme limited resources, this film is especially for you. It was eerily accurate to my own high school experiences. Not for the violence or bullying, but rather for the way these kids are as socially awkward, nerdy film lovers, who're finally discovering how to talk to girls. The film they make (that is 'The Dirties' movie within the movie) is strikingly similar to the films my friend Tim and I made in high school, and I'm sure the same goes for any high school cinephile trying to make content. It’s especially similar to a film Tim made in his freshmen year of college - down to the funny outfits, absurd plot, and countless allusions to other films. I felt so connected to the material and characters that by the end I was wrecked. It all felt so real.
The film was edited from a mountain of footage they compiled over a year's period. They shot in real schools, on real locations. One scene involves an actual pre-teen and his buddy who ask what these older kids are making and proceed to tell them about their own film. Matt and Owen eventually had to track these kids down in order to get them to sign a release, which was only agreed upon if they included the kids’ short film as bonus feature (which they did).
Smith hit the nail on the head by mentioning how we like the two students Matt and Owen (who kept their own names for the characters in order to make shooting all the easier), as they're genuinely funny and likable guys. I was overwhelmed by their knowledge of esoteric film trivia, which provides more than enough minutiae to satisfy the hardest of hardcore film fans. The story’s a cross between Zero Day (2003) and Elephant (2003), except while those two films paint their characters and story with extreme solemnity, The Dirties shows theirs as realistic high school students, complete with all the foibles, humor, and clumsiness. Never has a film since Downfall (2004 [yes, Downfall]) been willing to take such a large risk and paint its monstrous villain as such a real person. It helps us to understand. It shows that everyone has a breaking point. I don’t sympathize with what Matt did and neither does Owen, for that matter. What starts out as a casual idea starts building up, especially as Owen begins seeing a girl. And for anyone that’s had an inseparable best friend, you know how hard it is when that that person starts drifting away, spending more time with the girl, leaving you on your own, fearing that the friendship is going to fade. I did it. Tim did it. I’ve had many friends who did it.
We never know why Matt ultimately broke down. In some ways it seems like he lives and relies so heavily on the films he consumes that eventually the line where film ends and reality begins start to evaporate. It’s not the films that destroyed him, as I'm sure some would love to point to. It’s something innate. Perhaps if the teacher had been more encouraging, and tried to help these students make a better film rather than censoring what they had; maybe if Matt attempted to find interests beyond cinema he would have been able to forge other relationships. But that’s not him. He loves film. And in the suburbs where such a passion is frowned upon, and where your peers are eager and quick to criticize any attempt at creative expression, the ability to find something else just isn’t that easy. Movies portray a world that’s far more exciting than getting shoved to the ground, or slapped in the face, or punched in the stomach. I’m fortunate to have never been the victim of such extreme bullying. Others aren’t. The Dirties demonstrates that we need to look at these people as human beings rather than arbitrary manifestations of evil or alienation. If I had to show a film about bullying this would be it. Because it’s seemingly normal or eccentric kids that might have the hardest time asking for help. They’re the ones whose classmates say I can’t believe they actually did it. The Dirties is a brutal and honest look at such a situation.
BELOW: An interview with director Matt Johnson, which provides some great insight into the subject matter and a taste of the film's humor
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