Films at times can tackle some of the most controversial subjects, and these films can really turn out great. United 93 captured the raw emotion and power of the tragic day of 9/11, Kids captured the recklessness in the new teenage generation, and Brokeback Mountain addressed gay marriage at a time where it was very iffy for most people. All three of these films took subjects that people either did not want to talk about or did not know about, and brought reality and emotion to them, making them all great films in their own right. One controversy filmmakers have yet to really depict well is school shootings.
School shooting is perhaps the toughest controversy to capture in a film, and do so well. To nail the perfect balance between emotion and well-developed characters, while having a respect for the situation itself can be a tricky task. A few genuine attempts at doing so have largely fallen flat, with Gus Van Sant’s Elephant being a pretentious and thinly scripted attempt at an art house flick, and Zero Day really did not explore anything that we already did not know. The Dirties is a new approach at capturing a school shooting film, and in my opinion it is the best one yet.
The Dirties follows cinephiles Matt and Owen. The two are constantly bullied at their high school, and also are trying to make a film called The Dirties about them getting their revenge. The line begins to get blurred, as this project slowly turns into a real threat.
The performances in this film are very real and genuine. Matt Johnson plays his role perfectly, having a mixture between funny and likable, but malevolent and tortured from the inside. He is a guy that the audience sympathizes for, but also at the same time fears due to what he is feeling and thinking of doing. Owen Williams also does a good job, albeit with a much simpler character. He feels like a real and genuine teen, having that awkwardness you’d expect from a shy teen.
The heart and soul of the film though is the two friends and their friendship. Both Matt and Owen have a bond that is relatable and real. Their love for movies is something that any cinephile like myself appreciates and is drawn towards, but you also see the flaws. As Matt begins to get deeper and deeper into this plan, you see Owen trying to save him and help him through this, which hit me at an emotional level.
The film is very funny, which may be surprising to believe. These two throughout the first half are working on their movie, and that is full of many great movie references and jokes. The film caught me off guard how much great humor was there, and really made these characters all the more likable. Ranging from a royale with cheese bit to even the stupid Bane voice, Johnson’s screenplay contains a lot of great bits.
Matt Johnson not only wrote and starred in the film, but also directed it, and that is where he really shines. Working with relatively unknown cinematographer Jared Raab, the two collaborate to make a relatively good looking film, even with its use of the found footage technique. While it is somewhat simple to nail here, Johnson perfectly nails tone, which for a film like this is hard to do.
Johnson with both his direction and script do a great job of starting out the film in a light and fun way, with jokes and hijinks as these two joke around making their movie. This is where the film starts to get serious, and the shift in tone is done in a subtle and slow manner, rather than just throwing it in your face right away. Pulling this off takes much skill and technique, which Johnson clearly shows despite this being his first film.
What is the controversial aspect of the film is its bullying and violence. Finding a respectful line between showing the truth of it all without overdoing the action can be tough, but Johnson is able to find that grey point. The bullying in the film is tough to watch, and feels like something you’d see in a high school. Its not overdone or cinematic, but just very genuine, which what makes it all the more effective.
A minor note, the soundtrack for the film is great. There a good blend between rock music and then serious score, that fits the scenes in the film well. It’s a shame that an official soundtrack for the film is not out, because it would be a great pick up for sure.
While the found footage itself look good, the mechanics of it all does not work. Like most found footage films, it suffers from the problem of not knowing who and how some of these scenes are being filmed, ruining the whole gimmick a lot. The use of it had to be far better defined, as the whole use of it just became confusing and underdeveloped. Showing who the person was would have probably given a lot more impact, but it’s just kind of poorly handled.
Pacing at times is a problem. The film is short, barely over 80 minutes long, and moves naturally for the most part. About ten to fifteen minutes near the end of the second act is not up to speed with the rest of the film. It’s somewhat understandable, the fact that Johnson may have wanted to build up the tension of the scenario, but it largely just feels like a segment of filler, padding out the running time.
Despite from some technical flaws, The Dirties is a honest and urgent film, that meets most of its big ambition. Matt Johnson is one to watch in this industry for sure.
Take a Shot: For each movie reference.
Take a Drink: During each montage.
Take a Shot: Whenever you don’t know who is filming a certain scene. Perhaps it’s a ghost!