Directed by Matthew Johnson
It’s not a stretch to say that you’ve seen The Dirties before. Not the actual film, mind you; but in some way, be it through passive indifference or on the receiving end of a daily beat down, everyone has experienced what Matt and Owen, the film’s cinema-obsessed protagonists, go through in the brutally honest first feature from writer/director Matt Johnson.
Filmed in the found footage format, replete with the requisite text suggesting that what you’re about to witness is real, The Dirties opens with Matt and Owen, a pair of rather unpopular high school students making a movie about bullying. Armed with wireless microphones and a seemingly omnipresent camera operator, the two chronicle their filming process, all while giving the viewer a glimpse at their daily torment at the hands of the eponymous Dirties, a loose gang of bullies at their school hell-bent on making the worst of Matt and Owen’s high school years. Although their film is approached as a comedy, it features enough profanity and gun violence to prompt their teacher to force them to make cuts. After a disastrous screening that sees Matt leave the room and Owen get attacked by a rock-wielding bully, Matt poses the question, “What if we killed them for real?” With a clean slate, the duo begin to plan their next film.
Unlike most found footage films, the man behind the camera is rarely seen as part of the group, mentioned only by name once or twice as he films almost every aspect of Matt and Owen’s lives. Who is he? He’s clearly a friend to Matt and Owen, and they even refer to him by name several times throughout the film. But not once does he make himself part of the story. In class, at Matt’s home, and even when Matt and Owen embark on a trip with Matt’s cousin to shoot guns, the cameraman is there, documenting every moment possible to show us the consequences of bullying.
The result is the camera as a silent observer, rather than someone trying to make a document of events; it is, in essence, a metaphor for the current state of bullying. In the film Bowling for Columbine, director Michael Moore asks shock rocker Marilyn Manson what he would say to those involved at Columbine. Without missing a beat, Manson responds, “I wouldn’t say a single word to them, I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.” This is the crux of the film. As Matt digs deeper into this “film” he seeks to create, he begins to lash out, telling people straight up that he intends to shoot up the school. Each time is met with a half-hearted life, as if there is no reason to take them seriously. And why should they? Matt and Owen are two seemingly harmless high school students with a love for film. What could they possibly do?
In the same interview with Moore, Manson states that “music was the escape.” For Matt, cinema is his escape, and this is translated into the film’s narrative. It’s how he deals with the endless bullying that ultimately drives him to commit such a heinous act. But as the film progresses, these lines between what is real and what isn’t begins to blur, so much so that his friendship with Owen, who simply wants to give it up and work on getting to know his crush, becomes almost irreparably strained. It’s a commentary on the dangers of obsession, though it’s kept in the background and never attempts to blame the films Matt’s obsessed for his actions.
Initially, Matt and Owen want to make a light-hearted, yet serious narrative-cum-documentary that sheds light on the bullying problem on their school. The film the audience is watching can be perceived in much the same light. It may be fiction, but the troubles affecting those being bullied, from the act itself to the troubling reality of no one doing anything about it, are very real. In that Johnson and his crew have crafted an incredibly tragic and important film, filled with incredibly real characters. It’s a must see, if not for its novel use of the found footage format, but for paying reverence to a very serious subject in an exceedingly poignant way.
4 1/2 out of 5