Dirties, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/31/13 23:12:48

"Turns a movie (and character) I wanted little to do with around quite well."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Idle question: When seeing a film about bullying - whether or not it leads to school shootings or not - is it considered a success on the part of the filmmakers or evidence that I'm a horrible person if I initially have violent thoughts toward the victims? I mean, look, bullying is wrong, but writer/director/star Matthew Johnson's character is really, really annoying.

The kids getting picked on here are Matt (Matthew Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams), Toronto-area high school students who love movies and are throwing a ton of effort into a project for their media studies class. It's called "The Dirties", and has the pair as cops investigating a gang of bullies by that name, and they're not shy about integrating footage where the subjects either don't know they are being filmed. This leads to escalation on the part of the real-life bullies, and as Matt starts to talk in hypothetical terms about real-life retribution, he's also trying to help Owen get closer to Chrissy (Krista Madison).

The movie itself is sort of annoying in the same way the characters are as it starts, all self-conscious film fans recreating other scenes and not a whole lot of the characters as themselves. It picks up once we start to see Matt and Owen as individuals, with Matt's occasionally misplaced enthusiasm becoming more likable (if still a little overbearing) as opposed to just being fandom while Owen in finding a way to make other friends starts to separate himself from Matt. It's an interesting dynamic to watch, as it's encouraging to see where Owen is going, but the increasing distance friction between the pair that results certainly seems to be feeding into Matt's behavior.

The Dirties is presented as found-footage, although as the film goes on, there's evidence that "found" may not be the most appropriate adjective. Johnson and company do a kind of nifty thing with the found/repurposed-footage gimmick, too; there are times when it almost seems as if the cameraman is something Matt is imagining, and his editing of the footage a kind of delusion. This perspective is probably not intended - look closely, and the remnants of a deleted plotline about the people filming Matt & Owen when both are on screen - but it works, adding a new layer to how this particular character escapes into movies. There's already implicit commentary in the film on how its characters' generation is already, reflexively, blurring the line between an event and the shaping and commentary of it, as well as that between documentary and scripted films.

Indeed, the movie itself is occasionally in that sort of disputed territory, as the youthful Johnson and Williams (actually a teacher by trade) would in many cases just show up at the high school in character and let things take their natural course, with at least one case of Matt being pushed around being documented as opposed to staged and one or two of the more memorable minor characters just being local kids. There's something a little unnerving about making a movie this way, and it leads to a film that is even more improvised than the typical "we started with an outline but then just let the cast work" sort of thing. Some bits had to be planned and/or shot under controlled conditions, but the way the filmmakers allowed the picture to evolve on its own certainly does give it a real, if difficult to quantify, sort of energy.

It also puts a lot of pressure on the cast, but they tend to rise to the occasion (or at least give the filmmakers material they can shape into something interesting). Johnson offers up one of several portrayals of nerds that may hit a little close to home that showed up at the festival this year, and it's an impressive combination of abrasive and sympathetic, playing out in a way that seems all too reasonable. Williams, reportedly, was less comfortable with making his alter ego quite as far out as Johnson, likely shaping how Owen wound up gravitating toward a different group of kids over the course of the movie, but he acquits himself well for someone who is not primarily an actor, quite on-target when the movie must turn on him reacting a certain way.

That includes the ending, which is somewhat familiar but not quite the way one might expect. In some ways, that's a bit of a disappointment, but that must be seen in relative terms even within the movie: I spent the early going quite sure that I was going to dislike "The Dirties", but the film builds so well that the odd finish still leaves me with a movie that's fairly well above average.

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