The impact of bullying has been a hot topic over the last couple years, which is why The Dirties is such a timely and important film. The Dirties is simple in its premise, but powerful in its execution. This is a film that, by the very nature of its subject matter, will have a tough time reaching the demographic (parents and teenagers) that should see it the most.
Directed by 21 year-old newcomer Matthew Johnson, The Dirties revolves around film-loving best friends Matt (Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) as they film a revenge themed comedy for a school project. Like many teens, the boys are frequently bullied by peers whom they dubbed “The Dirties”. After routinely enduring abuse and humiliation at the hands of The Dirties, Matt plots a new film about a school shooting in which the bullies actually get killed on screen. What starts out as a lark slowly turns into an obsession; ultimately setting the stage for a journey that will put their friendship to the test.
Tackling the subject of school shootings can be a tricky feat in film. Similar to rape, there is very little in terms of escapism that comes with the idea of watching innocent and/or defenseless teens being gunned downed. People will immediately bring in their own real-life associations, including what they see and read in the news, into their viewing experience. This is why most of the films that have successfully broached the topic, like Elephant or Polytechnique, have had a somber and poetic tone.
The fascinating thing about The Dirties is that the impending school shooting, while the link that ties it all together, feels almost secondary. The film is more an exploration of the ramifications of persistent bullying. Johnson does an exceptional job of documenting the various levels of bullying that some teens endure. Since the film spends so much time establishing Matt and Owen’s friendship, the instances of bullying resonate so much more. This is even true for simple scenes like the moment in which Matt and Owen sit around a fire reflecting on the first time they were bullied.
Despite the heavy subject matter, The Dirties has a surprising amount of humour which helps to counterbalance its more sinister moments. It is a film that is unabashedly drenched in pop culture references as everything from Pulp Fiction to Catcher in the Rye finds its way into the film’s numerous one-liners. The levity in the film not only makes the topic of bullying easier to digest, but also enhances the overall creepiness of the film. You are laughing as you get caught up in the lives of these characters, knowing full well that something devastating is slowly brewing underneath the surface.
If there is one jarring aspect to The Dirties, it is the way it uses the film within a film aesthetic. At times both brilliant and puzzling, The Dirties often jumps between attempting to convey a raw documentary-style feel and an actual polished film. Matt frequently turns to the camera and talks to it as if the audience is the one doing the filming. The interesting, and at times frustrating, aspect of this is that the camera observes certain conflicts from a distance. As a result the audience must endure the camera ducking behind corners, peeking in windows, etc. This does not always achieve the desired impact that Johnson strives for, especially in moments where there is clearly no reason for the camera to be cowering. Since the audience is very conscious of the camera’s placement, and knowing that the characters are also aware, it does take the viewer out of the film on occasion.
Fortunately, this does not hinder the overall impact of The Dirties. Matthew Johnson’s film is a strong and stunning debut that is both innovative and compelling. It is a film that not only demands to be seen, but also discussed as well.