Whatever you think about him one way or the other, Kevin Smith definitely hit the nail right on the head when he got involved on the promotion/producing end with Matthew Johnson’s The Dirties. Don’t think a damned thing about Smith heading into seeing this film, just be glad he had the good sense to get behind it. The film, the feature directorial debut from Johnson, is a strong, self-assured and intelligently crafted cautionary tale about bullying and the possible consequences of looking the other way.
The film centers around Matt and Owen (Matt Johnson & Owen Williams), two high school students on the fringes of their insular school society trying to make it through their days with as little trouble as possible. They come across as intelligent, creative and sensitive young men which becomes an issue of empathy on the part of the viewer as you see the kind of abuse they endure as the film progresses. ‘The Dirties’ are a group of popular/jock/jerk kids in their school who make it, on a fairly regular basis, their job to make Matt and Owen’s lives tough. Everything from physical violence in the halls to embarrassing shaming in class and at lunch – Owen and Matt endure the full spectrum of youthful cruelty. It is, in a word, painful to watch. There is an unflinching focus on these events that made me squirm in my chair more than once. These scenes are raw and they are sad and they are relatable to many of us.
Owen and Matt work on a film for their film class (film class in high school? damned Canadians and their great schools) called ‘The Dirties’ which essentially casts them as badass detective/student/Dirty Harries/anti-heroes ridding the school of this scourge of decorum and decency. It is riddled with Tarantino references and silly dialogue and a secondary love story that reflects reality for Owen as he suffers greatly under an unrequited crush on his grade school sweetheart, Crissy H (Krista Madison). After a very poor reception with their film teacher (‘guys, think of this as the director’s cut. we need to get it to a PG version) and a painfully embarrassing showing to the rest of the class, things start to change.
Owen (bolstered initially by cheerleading by Matt) concocts a series of stunts to get himself closer to Chrissy and they kind-of work. Owen is emboldened by this and strives to make inroads with the regular crowd at school, all the while balancing the filmmaking and friendship duties with Matt. Matt, for his part, begins to formulate a way to expand their film to where the deaths are real and they rid the school of ‘only the bad guys.’ Matt is a whirling ball of energy and creativity and sensitivity so Owen shines a lot of this on as do we, the viewer. This is by far the most important creative and execution success of the film is the way we as the viewer get lulled into a false sense of security about Owen, and more importantly about Matt’s intentions. Do we give these boys a pass because we like them so much? Do we ignore seriously obvious signs that things might be more off than we want to admit?
The latter part of the film plays with our emotions, our understanding of everything we’ve seen and challenges us to take stock of where everything is. While that might seem like standard thriller-fare, it absolutely is not and the horror of what we see start to come together is heightened by our acceptance that we too have been taken for a ride in one form or other. We sit helpless as it all comes to a head, rendered stupid by the endearing nature of our main characters and all we’ve experienced with them up to this point. It is masterful in its cleverness but never too amused with itself to get cute. This is serious stuff and handled seriously.
After the screening I told people that I would love to find a way to get this film screened at high schools and I really mean that. While The Dirties is an excellent film, it is also a sober, straightforward look at the shortcomings of how we as a society deal with school violence and what could be done about it and that, that is its lasting value. I was flat-floored by the film and I hope against hope that there is some way to get it in front of as many high school students, teachers and administrators as possible. Excellent work by Matt Johnson and all involved.