Empathy is a vastly more powerful tool than fear. The Dirties, the debut film from Matt Johnson (who co-writes and stars), takes a pair of teenage film geeks who use a school project to make a film where they cast the bullies in their school as the villains. When their teacher sees their film he diplomatically demands a re-cut. Students murdering each other for a school made film in a post-Columbine world are not something that he'll allow in the class. The re-cut version is screened to their class and becomes cause for further derision and the subjects of the documentary become more antagonistic toward our geeks Matt (Matt Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams). What starts out as a defiant stunt quickly traps Matt and Owen in a spiral toward something uncontrollably dark.
Documentary cinema has really been the forum for serious discussion about the effects of bullying (Bully) or digging into the root cause of gun violence (Michael Moore's staggeringly powerful Bowling for Columbine). These young filmmakers Johnson, Josh Boles and Evan Morgan are astute beyond their years in being able to evoke the feeling of being bullied, the solidarity of friendship and the madness of isolation in plain sight.
The direction is the right kind of manipulative that it's evoking that documentary feel of real people in the experience but also so that you the audience member are in the mix of the action. Unlike a found footage film you're not coming to this with the lead characters in control of the lens, their kind of barking orders to unnamed minions behind the lenses that are barely addressed. In a way you as the the audience member becomes part of this faceless crew that shifts in and out of the direction of Matt and Owen's project.
What hit so close to home is that I was these guys. The posters, the barrage of film references, cutting together borderline inappropriate nonsense for school projects, that was me and my friends. I can't say that I experienced the same level of emotional abuse or isolation that Matt and Owen but I was dialled into their spaces, their lexicon and their comfort in all things film. For the longest time it's hard to see how someone so silly and warm could start to head down that path, until Johnson, Boles and Morgan change the dimension of the story as Matt is watching Owen bloom into his own person. Matt struggles to come to grips with the fact that his best friend is no longer adhering to the direction of their lives together. They’ve relied so heavily on their mutually assured alienation that once Owen begins to garners the attention of Chrissy (Krista Madison) and branches outside the shelter of the inner circle, he gains independence. This sends Matt into a spiral. The whispers of actually taking out the 'dirties' become ideas, the ideas become plans and the plans take shape. The meta universe collapses on itself when Matt starts reading the book Columbine (the account of the students responsible for the infamous school shooting) and deeply relating to the boys.
From the brink of escaping high school, to swirling into a maelstrom The Dirties is the kind of film that will ruin you, but devastate so artfully that your faith in humanity is restored.
[rating=4] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Matt Johnson Written by: Josh Boles (Story), Matt Johnson and Evan Morgan (Screenplay) with Matthew Miller (story editor) Starring: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Krista Madison, Shailene Garnett, Josh Boles, Brandon Wickens, Alen Delain