Friday, May 9, 2014

The Dirties (2013): The Elephant in the Room

The Dirties (2013)
dir: Matt Johnson

Even though high school shootings have been on the down low lately, mainly because there haven't been any single events with a significant toll, bullying is still a hot topic in North America. Previous films have attempted to take on the topic of the connection between bullying, isolation and shootings, including Gus Van Sant's Elephant, and Joey Stewart's The Final. But, most of these films haven't been nearly as close to the subject as Matt Johnson, whose first feature, The Dirties, masterfully tries to connect the hows and whys of school life in order to figure out student psychology.

The Dirties is about two geeks in high school who are the targets of bullying, and have been for most of their life. Matt and Owen are two best friends in high school and are also taking a film class that allows them to create a film of their own need. The film they make is a pop culture-filled landscape where they recreate famous film scenes in order to create a fantasy where they get revenge on the bullies of the school. When the film is deemed too violent and adult by the film teacher, and the bullying in school doesn't actually stop, Matt thinks that it would be cool to make a sequel...only a sequel that would be real instead of a fantasy. Meanwhile, Owen seems to be drifting to the cool kids as he tests the social formations of the school.

In order to recreate the reality of high school, Matt Johnson somehow got permission (or at least claims to) from the high school to re-enroll in a high school and film scenes in the high school in between class, and during as well. What The Dirties truly captures is the hand-off isolation that bullying creates. In many of Hollywood's fantasies, bullying tends to get crowds, or happen in secret. But, in reality, they can usually happen in the middle of the hall and everybody is too stunned to actually know what is happening. Or, they find it funny.

The style of The Dirties is in a pseudo-documentary that recalls Man Bites DogIn the Company of Men, and Hi, Mom! in the style of using handheld cameras and almost hidden-camera styles to create a compelling real life feel. Plus, The Dirties is also the student movie within the movie, which leads to having Matt and Owen adopt different acting styles for when they're acting and when they're acting like they're acting. The meta-realities within The Dirties adds a level of complexity that keeps it moving for the course of its almost too brief 90 minutes.

Matt Johnson, in capturing the teenage mind landscape, has created a movie about pop culture that doesn't bother ensuring that you'll get the reference or the joke. Everything is filmed with a nod and a wink to how teenagers process information, but it rarely cares if you get it. If you've ever been in a car with a teenager who rambles on about the things they care passionately about, this is the cinematic equivalent of that. If you're not in the culture, you just nod your head and let the information slip from your mind. And, in the case of The Dirties, what gets left in the cracks is the constant patine of bullying and association that can happen.

Exactly what Johnson is saying requires a dialogue by the viewer with himself and his own pre-conceptions. Johnson is commenting on bullying, media consumption, the corrupting nature of film, youth, social structures, awkwardness, growing apart, and life in general. The Dirties takes on the conception of the danger of pulp consumption head on, but it never lets you forget that it wasn't the pop culture that was the catalyst, but the bullies themselves. At one point, Matt is reading a book on Columbine, and commenting on his idolization of the two. Johnson isn't blaming the media, but he isn't wanting to completely dismiss it's effects either.

Unlike The Final, Johnson stops short of glorifying the final revenge. This isn't a revenge fantasy film. The film ends just as the revenge starts, on one of the most compelling judgments of the act that I don't think has been made in film tackling the subject before.

The Dirties is one of the most intriguing takes on bullying and revenge that has come in the years since Columbine. It's darkly comedic, complex, and surprisingly self-assured for doing an extreme tight-rope walk of meta-faux documentary and fictional narrative. It has a strong story and solid scene creation. And, it isn't a lecture on bullying either. It's kind of fun, but it makes you wonder why. It's a hidden gem.

No comments:

Post a Comment