The Dirties (2013)

19 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In “The Dirties,” film-buff/high-school student Matt has been bullied very often, to the point where he decides to turn his plight into art. He and his best (and only) friend, a fellow outcast named Owen, secretly record themselves being bullied, as part of Matt’s revenge-fantasy project for film-class, in which he and Owen act out the murders of their tormentors.

And not only that, but Matt insists that he and Owen are filmed at all times because he has something bigger planned in mind for his next project. He even buys a set of lavalieres so he has no issues with audio. For his next big project, he plans to make a companion piece to the previous film, in which he films himself actually bringing a gun to school and shooting the bullies, because since he suffered for his art, they apparently might as well do the same.

If you’re wondering right away, yes, “The Dirties” is technically another “found-footage” movie, as it’s shown through the camera’s (or multiple cameras’) point(s) of view. Oddly though, the people filming are hardly ever identified. Who is filming all of this? We never know. For all we know, it could more another student or two, or it could be a documentary crew who gave the kids expensive lavalieres and wanted to make a documentary about bullying and being bullied. Then again, maybe the latter isn’t true, since Matt seems to have edited the “film” the way he wanted.

With that strange tidbit aside, “The Dirties” is actually a well-put-together, compelling portrait of disaffected youth and a descent into sociopathic behavior. That a film geek is the main character is even more interesting. Matt (well-played by the writer-director himself, Matt Johnson) loves film, he loves to spew movie quotes, and he loves to play with the camera when he’s filmed, like his life is a movie because it’s better than accepting a normal teenage life in a school environment where he’s picked on constantly. And we hardly even see his parents, so it seems like he has very little support from anyone else other than Owen (Owen Williams), his only friend. And Owen is at the point in his life where he’d rather do something else, like make new friends and get a girlfriend, and he’s slowly but surely breaking away from Matt. The biggest turning point in Owen’s life is when Matt is too obsessed with his art, never talks to Owen like a real person anymore (and instead, as a “character”), and even scarier, actually seems serious about performing a school shooting. Earlier, he may have just assumed Matt was only kidding, but when he sees that Matt has blueprints of the school (and this is after they’ve had target practice, using real guns), there’s hardly a doubt anymore. These are real kids with real issues—issues of being bullied, isolation, moving on, drifting apart, and even some points, being bullies to each other and eventually to their own bullies.

School shootings are such a risky topic to focus on in America, especially in film, and “The Dirties” may be the first one I’ve seen that really dives into what can cause such a horrific event. When the promising sociopath feels like a real person, instead of a standard, cold, distant, ruthless, cold-hearted killer, that makes it overall tragic; when a funny, artistic, even empathetic guy is also bullied and more that can cause him to take drastic measures for revenge.

Even more tragic is that he’s a high-school teenager who has very little to focus on other than his art. And everyone else is slow to catch on that even the original project was an outlet for his frustration; even the teacher doesn’t catch on, because his only concern is the violence and profanity that he feels needs to be deleted. As for the students, when they see the finished first project early on, they’re not concerned at all; they’re just laughing and mocking Matt and Owen.

The actual shooting occurs in the last few minutes of the movie, and thankfully, Johnson doesn’t dwell on that as much as Matt’s dangerous status and complete loss of innocence, making himself even more of an outcast. It does this by saying little and even doing little. It focuses on the right powerful moment to tell us this as it becomes clear. This is no game anymore. In fact, it never was.

The riskiest thing about “The Dirties” and what I think it deserves high points for is it portrays Matt as a real kid. I’ve known people like him and Owen. At some point, we were all like them, in a way. So, when they get pushed to the limit, we can see why one of them could be moved to retaliate. And there may even be more that we’re just not seeing.

Before anyone goes crazy, let me emphasize that I do not think committing horrific violent acts is acceptable or condonable. And that’s certainly not what’s supposed to be taken from “The Dirties”—those who do take that from this completely miss the point Johnson was trying to make. Also, the movie doesn’t provide us with many clear answers…but it does raise more questions about what causes something like this to happen.

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