Review: ‘The Dirties’.
When you hear the name Kevin Smith in regards to film, what comes to mind? Clerks. Jay and Silent Bob. Chasing Amy. Shit Demons. That kind of thing. Fun comedy. So naturally, when word gets out that Smith has picked up a film about bullying and school shootings called The Dirties…well, I was honestly a bit skeptical.
Then the early screening reviews starting coming in…and every single one of them was singing the film’s praise. Winning Official Selection at Locarno Film Festival, Best Narrative Feature at Slam Dance, and Best Picture at Fantastic Fest, there was clearly a reason for all the hype. When the lights came on after the end credits, that reason had kicked me in the face a few times over.
Onto the review.
The synopsis is straightforward. Shown as a “found footage” film, with the cameraman left unidentified throughout, High School students, and best friends, Matt Johnson and Owen Williams (played by the actors of the same names; Matt is also the film’s director) are making a video project for school. Their subject, also the name of the film, is a gang of bullies called The Dirties, who often target Matt and Owen in real life. Their film depicts the boys themselves as sort of cop vigilantes, and through borrowing scenes and dialogue from cult films such as Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, and Irreversible, they eventually kill all of bullies, via, again, borrowed cinematic methods including a sniper shot, and bursting into the gang members’ fictitious cocaine den, subsequently blowing them away in a blaze of gunfire and shouting, “FREEZE, COCKSUCKA MOTHAFUCKAS!”. The audience laughed along at Matt’s goofy disposition and love for cliche film lines, as well as his seemingly good-natured response to what seems to be a long time of being bullied by the same group over and over.
Unsurprisingly, the film teacher is very not okay with the initial version of the film. Matt and Owen are told to bring the film down from it’s R rating, to a PG, or PG13 at the most. After some heavy editing, the film is deemed classroom-safe, and is shown to the boys’ peers…including, the subjects of the film, the bullies. After a few minutes of heckling, Matt storms out of the room, angry, while Owen sits quietly, paying attention to the reactions of only one person – his crush, the pretty and popular Chrissy.
Later on, in Matt’s room, the two are discussing the reactions of the class. Matt is noticeably more angry, and Owen just seems to not care about it whatsoever anymore. Matt suggests, in a far more enthusiastic tone than one would expect, that it would be “hilarious” to instead of pretending to kill the bullies…they actually did it for real, while filming the whole thing. For their school project. No one would freak out, though, since they would each be sporting shirts that said “We’re Just Here For The Bad Guys.” It would be SO hilarious and awesome…wouldn’t it?
This is when it started get dark, and stopped being a movie about two kids making a school project. At this point, the lines begin to blur between the movie the boys are making, and the movie we’re watching. You could almost feel the mood change in the theatre. I remember shifting uncomfortably in my seat, and my friend who I was watching the movie with quietly said “uh oh…”.
Sadly, that scene is the catalyst that begins to push Matt and Owen in different directions, and the story begins it’s descent into unsettling and uncomfortable. It’s very subtle at first…some of Matt’s activities are kept from even Owen initially…as the film continues, it’s very apparent that what started as an innocent school project is becoming much more real.
This is the first film I’ve seen that focuses on what leads to a school shooting, from the shooters’ point of view, which I doubt many directors have the guts to tackle. Considering bullying is such a hot topic in the media today, school shootings seem to be on the more taboo side of things – people just seem to want to blame music, or video games, or mental illness.
That being said, there’s a specific scene where Matt is reading a book about Columbine, in which he reads off the personality traits of a typical psychopath. “Owen! This is exactly what you say about me!” He says, far too happily. Matt’s character goes from instantly lovable and relatable, to someone you aren’t so sure if you’re afraid of, or afraid for. We can all relate to Matt and Owen in one way or another, and after becoming so attached to them in the film, experiencing their highs and lows, watching their paths veer apart and Matt’s taking such a severe dark turn, it’s hard to simply label him as just another crazed school shooter.
But that’s all those kids really are though, right?
We’re brought into Matt and Owen’s world right from the first shot of the film – they’re geeks. They love movies and video games. They collect comic books. They play Magic cards.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Look around your apartment.
The teenagers in the film, are real. They’re not glamorized, or vilified. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold come to mind instantly. They weren’t much different – but everyone has mainly focused on what they did – not how they got to that point.
The Dirties does a fantastic job of reminding us that constant harassment and ridicule can end very badly if teachers, parents, and authority figures turn a blind eye or wave it off. The scenes in the movie that depict everything from teasing to blatant physical assault, happen daily in high schools across the continent – daily, for weeks, months, even years, to the same teens. Real help is often never found – even when it is asked for. Speaking as someone who was bullied relentlessly for most of my school life, I found that the acting, especially Matt and Owen’s characters, was strong enough to bring back more than a few unpleasant memories. This film isn’t cheesy, or silly – it’s real, it’s in your face, and it tells a story in a way that needs to be seen.
Matt, along with (co-producers/co-editors) Evan Morgan and Matthew Miller, (story writer) Josh Boles, and (co-producer/cinematographer) Jared Raab, created something with a specific message – this is happening in the world, and if you feel uncomfortable, you damn well should. People often forget that these shooters are still human beings – still teenage boys. Ignoring that fact is one of the biggest problems our society has in regards to school shootings, and up until now, no one has had the balls to just come out and say “this needs to stop”. Whether or not something like Columbine could have been prevented with a simple intervention of teachers or parents is far too delicate of a topic to discuss in this post, but there is more than enough proof that doing nothing can have horrific consequences.
Hopefully, with the amount of exposure and rave reviews it has received so far, along with Kevin Smith’s enthusiastic backing, this will be a big step towards recognizing and working toward properly approaching such a difficult subject.
The Dirties tells a story that, regardless of what you were like in High School, you’ll certainly pay attention to, and won’t soon forget about. It hits theatres October 4th.
*BONUS!* If you’ve seen the film, check out this video of the Q&A that followed the screening. Obviously spoilers!