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‘The Dirties’ Review

The Dirties
Echo Pictures

Nobody asked for this movie. But someone was going to make it. I’m just glad it was Matthew Johnson, a young (but not as young as he looks!) Canadian director/co-writer/co-star who has the chutzpah to take on a really difficult subject and the chops to deliver without coming off as crass or exploitative. There are plenty who will refuse to give ‘The Dirties’ the time of day, and that’s somewhat understandable, but if you believe that, in order to correct a problem it must first be discussed, ‘The Dirties’ is, I feel, a noble mix of entertainment and social importance.

‘The Dirties’ is a found footage movie about kids who plan a school shooting.

Oy. Yeah, I don’t want to watch that either. Quite frankly, I don’t know that I would have watched it if I knew that’s what it was going in. (All I knew about ‘The Dirties’ is that it won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival – and since I loved last year’s winner ‘Welcome to Pine Hill‘ so much, I requested a look with no prep whatsoever.) Luckily, Johnson and his team have the goods. Engaging this movie is like jumping into the deep end of a cold pool. You just do it and yell for a second, but once you are in you’ll want to swim around.

When we first meet Matt and Owen (played by Johnson and co-star Owen Williams) they are high school aged dorks making their own movie for a class project. Matt is more energetic (on the schoolyard he might be dubbed a “spaz”) and Owen a tad more reserved, but equally enthusiastic in their assignment. They really know their movies (there’s a deep cut reference to Gaspar Noe’s ‘Irreversible’ early on, as well as a recurring ‘Being John Malkovich’ gag) and they are putting their all into the movie.

We meet them the day they first crack open their wireless mics. There is a third (and sometimes fourth?) unseen friend who is constantly shooting. There is one or two oblique references to the camera person to establish some reality, but this is quickly dropped. In a lesser film (like the ostentatious ‘End of Watch‘) the stretched verisimilitude of the stashed cameras are annoying. In ‘The Dirties,’ the dynamism and pop on display don’t offer too much time to think stew on it.

The first act of ‘The Dirties’ is a solid and extremely well-edited dual character portrait. Matt and Owen are ruthlessly bullied, but the traumas they suffer are more death by a thousand cuts than huge school-wide indignities.

Their plight is incorporated into the film project. They will play cops of some sort out to gun down the crime leaders, who, unknown to them, will be played by their bullies (whom they call the Dirties.) As the story ramps up we see their hidden camera techniques and editing tricks (they prompt a popular girl to say a phrase in class which works as a stolen shot,) but as tension mounts Matt becomes more convinced that, for the conclusion of the film, they really ought to use real guns. Simultaneously, a girl Owen has liked since 3rd grade is beginning to acknowledge his existence, thus mellowing his militant attitude a bit.

‘The Dirties’ had my interest from the first scenes, but when I recognized where the story was headed I had that rarest of reactions: actual, physical discomfort. My face got hot, my stomach roiled. It is way too close to the Sandy Hook incident, I thought, for anyone to consider watching this movie. Thing is, I was hooked. I cared about the characters and I really had no clue how things were going to play out. (SPOILER: not exactly how you expect.) I came to the conclusion that Johnson had earned the right to make this movie. If he hadn’t, believe me, I’d be calling for his head.

For a topic that has been top of mind for so many of us for so long, there haven’t been too many movies about school shootings post-Columbine. The other biggie, Gus Van Sant’s remarkable ‘Elephant,’ couldn’t be more different. That is a dreamy, hazy and finely choreographed cinema exercise that, while spellbinding, doesn’t have the close emotional connection found in ‘The Dirties.’ The use of humor and the downplayed, naturalistic emotional beats really resonated with me – along with all of the obsessive movie talk.

A bold distributer will pick this up. They may sit on it a bit, but, our warped society being what it is right now, there’s no way to predict when the next gun massacre will take place. Nevertheless, this is a movie that you should seek out. It’s important, but also quite (dare I say it?) entertaining, and a fine first feature for a new director. Matthew Johnson is officially on the “one to watch” list.

‘The Dirties’ premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.

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