DIR: Matt Johnson • WRI: Matt Johnson, Evan Morgan, Josh Boles, Matthew Miller • PRO: Matt Johnson, Matthew Miller, Evan Morgan, Jared Raab • ED: Matt Johnson, Evan Morgan • DOP: Jared Raab • MUS: Jay McCarrol. CAST: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams, Krista Maddison
Teenagers and film aficionados Matt (Johnson) and Owen (Williams) set about making a film for a school project about a vicious gang of school bullies – the ‘Dirties’ of the title – that are running rampant in their school. However, when the finished film is rejected and altered by their teacher, things turn progressively nastier. Matt starts harbouring a plot to make a documentary in which he and Owen really get revenge on the bullies that torment them. Owen, uncertain of Matt’s seriousness, goes along with this plan for a while but when he starts getting the attention of his crush, Chrissy, his and Matt’s relationship becomes more fraught. This does nothing to help Matt’s own deteriorating mental health and grasp of reality.
This reasonably provocative picture ambitiously attempts to tackle issues such as bullying, high-school massacres and the relationship between violence and cinema through a pseudo-documentary, found-footage aesthetic. The film consistently plays with the audience making them uncertain as to the veracity of what they are watching and forcing them to engage with unlikeable characters, awkward situations and ultimately, tragedy.
The most admirable and successful aspect of the film is the genuine discomfort and awkwardness it creates. Exchanges between Matt, Owen and some of the cooler crowd can be genuinely cringe-inducing to watch. As events become darker and ever more tragic the film becomes even more difficult to watch, with the audience not sure who to sympathise with. Debutant director and star Johnson has no qualms about putting his audience through the ringer and doesn’t offer easy to digest answers or solutions. He bravely paints the protagonist Matt as a deeply irritating presence yet manages to articulate a complexity and vulnerability to the character that forces the audience to confront their own feelings about him and perhaps even the way they would treat a real life person such as this. While it may not reach the heights of something such as Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse in its dealing of uncomfortable truths to do with teenage life and bullying, it’s refreshing to see the film maintain such an uncompromising streak throughout its duration.
The film is cleverly constructed and offers plenty of food for thought. One is consistently wondering who the cameraman who is capturing Matt and Owen’s adventures is and even how many cameraman there are. It’s questioning of the complicity and responsibility of this mysterious cameraman/men resembles another pseudo-documentary examination of cinematic violence in the 1992 controversial Belgian black comedy Man Bites Dog. Yet for all this I’m not entirely convinced that Johnson offers up as much genuinely profound insights about the nature of cinema or authorship as he attempts to. It’s ambiguous enough so as not to come across as an overwrought indictment of cinematic violence or of sensationalising its risky subject matter but its form and playfulness also means that the film is unable to reach the poetic ambiguity of something such as Gus Van Sant’s thematically similar Elephant. The film touches on raw, interesting ideas on both film and violent tragedy but doesn’t quite succeed in bringing these opposing strands together into a successful whole.
Still, it is heartening to see filmmakers attempting to tackle such weighty philosophical and social issues in a new way. This is a film that genuinely attempts to engage with form and content in a fresh manner and, though not entirely successful, is a consistently troubling, often surprising experience that marks Johnson out as a talent to watch.
15A (See IFCO for details)
The Dirties is released on 6th June 2014