The Dirties is the film-within-a- film made by two best friends as a revenge fantasy against the jocks who bully them at their high school. Eventually events escalate from harmless fantasy into terrifying reality. Unfortunately, despite an admirable desire to approach a hot button issue with some degree of insight, first time director Matt Johnson handles the whole enterprise with the heavy handedness of an after school special and does not quite connect the dots between his themes and what he presents on screen with very much clarity.
Matt (Matt Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) are high school BFFs and unapologetic film nerds. So much so that they have decided to enlist the aid of a third, unidentified friend (cinematographer Jarad Raab) to film them every minute of the day as they make a movie called The Dirties, which is the collective noun they give the bullies at their school. At first the film is a way for the boys to process their feelings of inadequacy and to deal with their victimization. Their revenge fantasies take a darker turn, however, as Matt begins training with firearms and planning a real life assault on their oppressors. Soon, the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur.
On the one hand, The Dirties wants to address the issue of the Darwinian nature of high school and how violence becomes a way for teenagers to forge their own identity. The film also discusses how a lot of mass shootings in schools and elsewhere come not only from a place of marginalisation but an overbearing desire for celebrity, no matter what form that takes. Additionally, Johnson explores the audience’s complicity in violence, whether it is through consuming news footage about a real life event or through the escapism of cinema. Rather than properly engaging with these themes, however, Johnson feels it is necessary to bludgeon the viewer with a sledgehammer to make sure his point of view is understood, much to the detriment of the film itself.
The film-within-a-film structure is at best a distraction and at worst undermines the point Johnson is trying to make. As a found footage/mockumentary film The Dirties struggles for relevance. By including an unseen character which is complicit in all of Matt’s actions, the film makes an attempt to engage the audience with their role as a consumer of Internet videos, news reports and cinema. However this is not Funny Games and Johnson is certainly not Michael Haneke, so it all just comes off as a gimmick.
The film the two friends set out to make in the beginning is an ultra-low budget pulpy cop thriller with almost every line and conceit stolen from the movies they love to watch in Matt’s basement. Films are all Matt has as an identity and within his own films he is the star. So when it comes to real life where he is just the victim and not the hero, he becomes determined to redress the balance by filming a real life rampage where he deals out his own poetic justice.
Johnson wishes to point out that it is Matt’s desire to be noticed that leads to his revenge on the bullies, but these connections never really come to the fore in a clear enough way to not be misinterpreted. It feels more like it’s Matt’s obsession with film and their ability for narrative catharsis that is responsible for his eventual acts of destruction. It feels almost like he doesn’t feel that his action will have consequences because they are captured by the camera and they don’t really exist. This creates the feeling that one is watching an after school special from a fear mongering right-wing lobby group who believe it is the influence of films and video games that drive children to kill one another, not the culture of violence that permeates their high school environment.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, as The Dirties is also actually very funny. In the early parts of the film, it is obvious Matt and Owen are just goofing around while the camera is running and this produces some of the strongest laughs. The early cut of The Dirties that they present to their class is also a very funny and endearing high school film, with all its mistakes and pastiche of cinema’s clichés. These moments make it clear why Kevin Smith has given the film such a huge endorsement. There are some decent performances at times from Matt and Owen as well, and some quite tense scenes between them and the bullies who terrorize and humiliate them in front of their classmates.
The Dirties wants to say a lot important things. It wants to shout them from the roof tops, in fact. But it is a bit too clever for its own good. Regrettably, it never quite sticks the landing. Like his onscreen persona, Johnson wears his influences on his sleeve (especially in the closing credits, where there are many more film references) and his ambition far exceeds his grasp. That is not necessarily a bad thing, as an ambitious failure is better than a mediocre success, but Johnson is preachy when he should be perceptive and far too blatant when he should be understated.
In meta-mockumentary The Dirties, the all important issue of high school violence is undercut by a little too much preaching and not enough subtlety.