Director: Matt Johnson Writers: Matt Johnson and Evan Morgan Stars: Matt Johnson and Owen Williams Run Time: 83 min Rating: Not yet rated
With the hot topic of bullying on everyone’s minds and a recent increase in school shootings, a film like The Dirties could not come out at a more relevant time. The first feature from York University student Matt Johnson is a mockumentary about two high school students who are making a movie chronicling their challenges with the bullies at their school, who are known as “The Dirties”.
The film is daring in its approach, mostly due to the way it handles its tone. The film, which plays like a comedy for the most part, also deals with some very heavy issues that are relatable for many viewers. Matt Johnson and Owen Williams, whose characters share their real names, seem to be obsessed with the idea of killing the bullies at their school, but it is understood as hypothetical, wishful thinking; just a joke. However, from the beginning as we see them struggle with being beaten up and ridiculed on a daily basis by other students at their school, there is always a sense that their motives to take revenge are true desires that they may at any moment act upon. The film champions balancing the buddy-comedy relationship between Owen and Matt with the real issues revolving around bullying that the film presents. The film has laugh-out-loud moments, but a lot of them are rooted in a dark place. This tone is also due to the realism of the film, and the sometimes-confusing “mockumentary” style. We know from the beginning that the characters of Matt and Owen are making a movie, but it has a weird “Inception”-like quality of being a movie within a movie within a movie. There is the movie that Matt and Owen are making in the film called “The Dirties”, the film the audience is actually watching about Matt and Owen making a movie called “The Dirties”, and even the characters in the film themselves blurring their own realities between what is for their movie, and what is in this movie. This confusion is one thing about the film that is off-putting at times, as it can be difficult to differentiate between the movie in the movie, and the actual movie.
That being said, this style of film-making takes realism to a whole new level. Many independent features excel at capturing a true-to-life portrait, but The Dirties feels like a documentary simply due to the naturalism of the acting by Matt Johnson and Owen Williams. It is remarkable, as these are not really professional actors; Matt is a filmmaker, and Owen has had no previous experience acting in film. They create characters that feel like people you may have gone to school with before, but as they are really the only main characters in the film, they have the opportunity to become real people to the audience as all of their nuances and personalities are fully developed and feel authentic. It rarely feels like you are watching actors on a screen.
This technique allows for an interesting perspective as well, because Matt and Owen are simultaneously the protagonists and antagonists of the film. “The Dirties”, for the most part, are the villains here, but with their hatred towards this group of bullies, we see that the main characters have their downfalls too. It makes for a complicated question that society has been forever trying to answer: If we kill the bad guys, does that make us bad guys, too? That’s where this film allows the viewer to truly sympathize with people whose perspective we rarely get this extent of an insight into: those who are driven to commit crimes because of their personal victimizations.
The Dirties is an innovative and daring film that fluctuates in tone from funny to disturbing and often both at once. The naturalism of the actors and the mockumentary style of the filming make it feel as though you are watching real life. Filmmaker Matt Johnson has made a film about bullying that explores a perspective rarely shown, as he allows the audience to become attached to two main characters that start out as victims, and delves into how this controls and ruins their lives. The film leaves the viewer with a lot to think about, issues that society has struggled with forever; the main question this film poses is to what extent is someone “the bad guy”. It is an important film that will be relatable to anyone who has experienced bullying at any point of their life, but even while being relatable, will still leave that person questioning their values and what it means to do the right thing and to stand up for yourself. Matt Johnson and Owen Williams have created characters with whom one can sympathize, but who may also betray you, and themselves. The Dirties is extremely relevant and will raise many questions about how we can cope with bullying, but also allows you to see the true deterioration and break down it can cause for the victim. This film manages to do all of this without being violent or over-the-top. It is the subtle approach that really can dig under your skin and leave you with a feeling of unease.