What do I say about The Dirties? A film that shook me up and has hung around with me days after I’ve seen it.
Matt Johnson’s courageous and ambitious feature film debut is a tough film to recommend to a wide audience because of its timely, controversial material handled with a sense of humour. You definitely have to be in a specific mood for its darker approach to school shootings and the troubled youth who are pushed to their limits. But while it wears a straight face during these more disturbed moments, it’s also very personable, emotional, and very funny.
Johnson’s film was developed from a concept thought up by Josh Boles and Johnson and Evan Morgan worked with it. The film was then shot without a standard script, but with ideas in tow. It’s a free form that works wonders for The Dirties since a lot of it feels very spontaneous. It guarantees authentic reactions and readings from people who had a cohesive but limited idea to what Matt Johnson’s vision was for this chilling movie.
The film follows two high school film buffs who are consistently bullied and laughed at publicly. They are perfectly content staying within the confines of their friendship, but are targeted day-by-day by broader students who think their excitement is weird or pathetic.
Johnson and Owen Williams – who play fictitious characters but keep their real names – humour the idea of making an updated version of their movie in-the-making. This revamped cut would have Johnson and Williams getting revenge and actually shooting the “bad guys” dead. Johnson grows more serious about the plan and Williams comes to realize how determined his friend actually is.
Johnson’s feature plays out like a slapdash collection of scenes, but this is a film that’s far from being just “thrown together”. This smart, well crafted film handles the tonal shifts with ease – which says a lot because of the spur-of-the-moment nature of Johnson’s filmmaking.
It’s also quite brave tackling such subject matter with an innocent and amusing voice. Johnson isn’t afraid to crack wise while discussing a murderous plot. The dark comedy never feels out of place or disrespectful. It expertly walks a fine line between understanding the brutality of a school shooting and not having a clue.
The Dirties also offers a very thoughtful view on how a built-up adolescent stylized imagination can play out in real life. Everything from catch phrases to signature moves that Matt Johnson hypes up in his own head are shown how low-key they are in a reality outside of violent movies.
There’s a lot of ambiguity in The Dirties though regarding if the audience is watching a mockumentary shot by other students, a camera crew filming the new version of Johnson and Williams’ project, or just providing a fly on the wall perspective of someone who talks to himself.
During a Q&A after its Toronto premiere at Toronto After Dark, Matt Johnson addressed the issue. He told the audience that these unclear moments are left to the audience to interpret and perceive in their own way; opening the film up to many theories.
It didn’t sound like a cop out and upon thinking about it more and how we see Johnson’s character obsess, it’s a filmmaking choice that usually works in the context of those scenes in question. But to the average movie goer who hasn’t heard Johnson explain his methods, it’s a directorial decision that is going to have a hard time transferring to a wide audience. Especially when characters start breaking “the fourth wall”.
The Dirties is a special film, however. It crucially addresses the bullying issue plaguing schools without beating its audience over the head with a message. Even the bad decisions Johnson’s character makes in the movie are not followed up by abundant chastising. This director trusts his mature audience will see what is right and what is wrong. That’s a quality that is so rare amongst young filmmakers.
Matt Johnson and company reached for the impossible and ended up making a very moving, visceral, and touching indie. We should all be glad a movie like The Dirties exists.