Masterfully taking on media-making headline subject matters of bullying and school shootings with the rarely witnessed buddy comedy swagger, Canadian writer/director/star Matt Johnson approaches sensitive material in his feature debut with panache. Tackling the hallway issues at hand with gusto and comedic grit, The Dirties takes a vivid look at the evolution and eventual erosion of a friendship, all amidst the backdrop of high-school bullying and its potential repercussions.
Matt (Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) are best friends and unapologetic film geeks who also happen to be the targets of a group of bullies at their high school. Opening with a hilarious bit of exposition as Matt is explaining to a couple of younger kids that he and Owen are making an action movie for film class about two high school detectives taking down the bully situation amidst their locker dwellings. They call their opus “The Dirties”, which is also what Matt and Owen call their nemeses at school. And while Owen is a bit more grounded in reality, Matt lives life as if it’s a series of film excerpts; gorging on film references in his everyday life. When push comes to shove, Matt begins to envision making a school shooting-style movie where he actually kills the Dirties. Meanwhile, Owen takes Matt’s plans with a grain of salt and is actually starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of his long-time crush, Chrissy (Krista Madison). Eventually, The Dirties comes full circle leaving audiences with much to contemplate after a generous 75 minutes of laughs.
The film serves as a showcase for the surprisingly rounded talents of Johnson as a budding auteur. Shot in a documentary style – it’s almost as if the student film is the subject of a feature-length making-of – and full of improvisational performances (many of the people seen onscreen were not even aware they were being filmed), it’s still clear from the get-go that a lot of what happens on screen was decided upon even while the camera was rolling such as a sequence where Johnson obtains the hall of records and asks for the blueprints to the school and the clerk simply hands them over, no questions asked. You can see this unplanned moment register in Johnson’s eyes and he immediately turns to the camera and marvels at how she didn’t even ask him for his student ID. It’s these small moments that ground The Dirties in reality and yet manages, in the same gesture, to make audiences laugh in the same knee-jerk response.
Far from being a buddy comedy, The Dirties is a sobering film about a serious subject matter that makes a point of showing that the perpetrators in school shootings are human beings, too. Should we feel guilty for actually liking Matt (the character), knowing what he plans on doing? That’s something for the individual viewer to wrestle with. But whatever side of the fence you land on in that inner struggle, there’s no denying that strengths of this low-budget indie.