The Dirties is a feature I have meant to write about on Readers Digested for a while, but, for some reason or another, I have never had the chance to sit down and gather my thoughts about the film. Until now, of course. The directorial debut of Matt Johnson, The Dirties is a 2013 Canadian found footage film, written by Johnson, and starring Johnson and Owen Williams, respectively.
Although I don’t hear The Dirties mentioned a lot outside the alcoves of the genre, it received a positive critical reception from critics, including the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival (a smaller film festival that offers a platform to features with budgets of less than a million – this film, in-particular, only had $10,000 set aside for its production). Kevin Smith, who helped distribute the film, even dubbed it as “the most important movie you will see all year”, which I think is a zealous statement, but one I appreciate Kevin Smith for making about the film. Sometimes you need hyperbole to level the platform for the little guy. I originally watched this film years prior on DVD, but individuals who’re interested can watch the film with a subscription to Shudder – a neat subscription service I would recommend to horror enthusiasts (a lot of what I have talked about on Readers Digested, for instance, came from, or is now on Shudder).
Like my review from a couple days ago, sharing my thoughts on Random Acts of Violence, and my more recent weekly reviews of South Korean films, The Dirties is a feature tackling interesting, taboo subject-matter, with a lot on its mind. I like that, and, in general, whether it always lands or not, it is the type of content I want to shine a light on with Readers Digested. I enjoy Happy Death Day and / or the latest Conjuring film, but sometimes it can feel like mainstream horror has only a handful of ideas they like to cycle through on repeat. I like it when storytellers and filmmakers allow themselves to tackle subjects that we haven’t desensitized ourselves to, and things that are relevant and even uncomfortable to talk about.
In The Dirties, Owen and Matt are high school students with a love for cinema, dropping familiar lines and displaying an encyclopedic knowledge about them. They are bullied and antagonized for being different and not aligning with the values of the popular students, and oftentimes vent in ways that would not likely fall in the good graces of political correctness. Specifically, they make comments in jest about shooting up the school and seeking revenge on the students who have bulled them (aptly named The Dirties). Matt soon finds himself more and more taken in by the idea of The Dirties having their comeuppance and starts to look at it in a very “cinematic” way – suggesting that, perhaps, after using film as his escapism, he has finally, in fact, escaped reality.
The portrayal of Matt and Owen, I have a feeling, could be poignant to many of you, and, for transparency, was poignant when I watched it. Although I never had any thoughts about shooting up a school, in high school, I had an immense love for cinema (which led to Readers Digested’s creation, in fact), and, as I watched the film, was able to identify every small reference dropped in the film. I had a best friend I could bounce off of, both of us affectionately watching any film that would come in our possession. In fact, when I first watched The Dirties, it was back in high school with that best friend, and I can remember playing I spy with all the different DVDs and posters shown over the course of the film. I can also remember feeling different and lesser than my classmates, and feeling alienated and ostracized for who I was as a person.
The Dirties is filled to the brim with cringeworthy scenes, but, not because they are badly acted or insincere. The film has those “Office” moments, the ones where you feel like you have to look away from the screen from second-hand embarrassment. The scenes capture the ugly, imperfection of high school, where behaviors can sometimes feel like a messy imitation of what actual behavior should be like.
One criticism I heard about this film compared it to the Scream series, saying it, more or less, is an attempt at doing that, with school shooters. The comparison certainly warrants discussion and is a natural comparison to make. Both are commentaries about how film can influence an individual’s behavior, with neither making the outright declaration that film is the cause of it (“Movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative.”).
Whereas, with The Dirties, similar to The Final (another film about students who seek revenge on classmates), it is more based in how Matt’s character is impressionable, with the problem stemming from bullying, and the outcome arising from self-medicating on entertainment (since we’re name-dropping, I would also recommend Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Benny’s Video if you are looking to have a marathon on this kind of grim commentary). The portrayal of Owen and Matt’s infatuation with film also feels more like something you will see in the real world, less exaggerated and over-the-top than what’s seen in the Craven slasher flick.
The Dirties’ cinematography is surprisingly skillful for a low-budget film, with the camerawork never feeling too cutesy with the found-footage approach. A lot of improvisation went into the film, with nearly no scripted dialogue and some scenes being filmed without the participants’ knowledge. This, in itself, could be damning for a film, and usually is, because that attempt at realness or seeming genuine could be lost if a cast is not up to the task.
When I first found out that Matt Johnson directed the film, prior to knowing their names (which are the same in film as in real life), I knew which character was Matt. Matt Johnson is constantly on the move as a character, whose energy, insecurity, and opinionated nature elevates a lot of the film, with the rest of the cast reacting to him. There is a certain sense that he is “trying very hard” to perform, which, in normal circumstances, is a bad thing, but in the context of this film, about a person struggling with their grip on reality and seeing themselves more as a character than an actual person in their own life, he works really well.
Early on, the film is actually fairly nostalgic, for me, in the way Matt and Owen’s friendship is portrayed. I can easily insert myself in one of their scenarios, and that is benefited by how funny the film actually be in some instances. Some of the innocent things they do, sound familiarly stupid. For instance, at one point, Owen likes a girl, and, in order to entice her, they create an absurd scenario where they bake a cake and offer it to her, saying they stole it from a Home Ec. class to look cool.
I think that, because of how it was created, a lot of individuals may be able to insert themselves into the film. And it is a dodgy film to insert yourself in given the circumstances. That, in itself, however, can make it more gripping and more effective as a commentary. If you weren’t brought up on film, a lot of the references and lines thrown in may not necessarily land in the same way.
Regardless, however, I do recommend the film and I consider it a very solid directorial debut for Matt Johnson, whose 2016 film Operation Avalanche and series Nirvana The Bang The Show, seem to continue this eccentric, experimental approach to filmmaking and a stupid (in the nicest ways) sense of humor that I look forward to experience more of.