Oftentimes a critic’s impassioned praise for a smaller, independent film is not enough to get people into the seats, and therefore the movie’s impact is mostly missed. This happens to be the instance for the little-seen but highly powerful Canadian film, The Dirties, a first feature for director Matt Johnson who also wrote and stars, that boldly takes on difficult subject matter and shines a new light on the issue it depicts.
The Dirties follows Matt and Owen, two normal high school kids who get bullied on a regular basis. The film, which is mostly improvised by the actors, takes on very disturbing material but sets it in the reality in which high school kids experience bullying everyday. Watching this movie feels like you are watching real life. It is not over-the-top or sentimental, but matter of fact.
Taking on a comedic tone and portraying Matt and Owen as two guys who seem to only really have each other, but who are extremely likeable and relatable, The Dirties is honest, and uses the actor’s real life personas to help paint this realism. Matt Johnson and Owen Williams, who seem to be playing versions of their younger selves, give two of the most natural performances that you will see in any film this year. They are ordinary teenage boys with absolutely ordinary problems. The ways they approach these problems, however, are not how anyone would expect.
One thing that stands out about Matt and Owen is that they are into filmmaking, and a school project for film class sparks the idea of making a film about the bullies at their high school. They call their film “The Dirties“. In this film, Matt and Owen are the heroes, taking down the scum at their school. In the process of this project, Matt gets the idea that he could be the hero in real life, and that Matt and Owen should actually, in real life, make a film about killing their bullies.
As Matt becomes more and more obsessed with this idea, The Dirties becomes a uniquely profound meditation on what it means to be a victim or a hero, as well as the blurred lines between right and wrong from the perspective of a teenager. The film we are watching, The Dirties, is shot in a documentary style, in which we the audience are watching Matt and Owen document their own lives, creating footage for their film within the film. A concept that has been done before, this meta-aspect of The Dirties presents new elements, such as the fact that Matt, the main character in both films, loses track of himself as a character or a real person. The Matt that is a character to us, the audience, also becomes a character to himself, as his every living moment is given in service to the documentary film he is making. One moment of the film sees Owen call Matt out on this, saying that Matt is “always acting, that he isn’t himself anymore”. It is because Matt loses his own sense of himself and his reality that something as obscene as killing other kids at his school loses its seriousness; it is, for Matt, just for the sake of the movie.
On another level, but in the same vein, the film hits on the idea of fame and celebrity, and the disconnect between reality and fiction. One very striking moment in the film involves Matt watching some footage he has of himself being beat up, and saying that watching it makes it feel like it’s not even him on the screen. This sense of disconnect is what allows the otherwise sweet and innocent Matt to become a killer. It’s not real if it’s just a movie. Matt, who is a complete film geek, and who spends half of his dialogue quoting and referencing the kind of films that he aspires to make one day, gives this film another layer of complexity, as it shows the impact of entertainment, the notion of celebrity, and how it affects a young mind. He is a kid who is tired of being bullied. To fight it, he feels he is making a film that will be groundbreaking, and that no one has ever seen anything like before. The idea that he could become famous and could become someone through this further compels Matt’s idea that he is doing something right.
While The Dirties tackles all of these difficult topics, from bullying, to celebrity, to a total disregard of the consequences of something as devastating as a school shooting – it manages to keep a strange balance, between light-heartedness and complete disturbance. We, the audience, follow these two charismatic leading characters, getting a deep insight into their thought processes and their lives, and in the end see them become betrayed by their own selves, as they are failed by their own ideas of an ideal world. They aspire to a world where the consequences don’t exist – where they’re only killing “the bad guys”.
The Dirties is the kind of film that rarely gets the attention it deserves, but with the support of producer Kevin Smith, the film did get a small distribution in North America. If you have not seen it, I hope that you seek it out. Although awards attention is a lost cause, The Dirties is a film that will make you question, make you think, and will challenge your perception of who is the bully and who is the bad guy.