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Zack Mosley [Celluloid 10.18.13] Canada drama

The Dirties is a mockumentary about a high school shooting. You don't see a premise like this every day, and I almost have to respect the testicular fortitude of it by default. It's not easy to get stuff like this past people with money, or people with sense, or people with taste. And maybe director Matt Johnson did not in fact get this past people with money, since it appears that this atypically edgy Canadian indie was pulled off on something approaching a zero budget. But fuck people with money and conventional wisdom, because this particular mockumentary about a high school shooting turns out to be a subversive, hilarious and touching story that cuts deeper to the heart of the matter than most dramas could. It's like Elephant meets American Movie.

Matt (Matthew Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) are best friends/social outcasts/film nerds. (Oh, and there's also their third wheel “Cameraman” who may be invisible and never utters a word). For their film class project, they make the wish-fulfilment fantasy film “The Dirties”, in which they play trigger happy cops while their unsuspecting classmates play the titular gang of bullies on the receiving end of their habeas-corpus-be-damned tactics. Predictably, their teacher is not impressed, and neither are the real-life Dirties, who brain Owen with a rock after school. That's when Matt hits upon a revelatory idea: they should kill the Dirties for real, and document the whole thing.

The dynamic between Matt and Owen is the strongest aspect of this film. Matt takes the lead with their film projects, sampling dialogue and whole scenes from his favorite movies (The Usual Suspects, The Dark Knight, that type of thing) in over-the-top performances while Owen sticks to the straight man bits. Matt sees girls as props, while Owen pines for a childhood friend who is now a member of the popular clique. Matt is a live wire of energy with no filter between his brain and his mouth, while Owen is cautious and reserved and sensitive to the feelings of others. Matt seems to have trouble separating the fantasy of film-making from reality, while Owen is more practical. Matt is the instigator of the plan, while Owen just seems to go along with it half-jokingly. Watching these two bounce off each other, it became hard to guess whether they would actually follow through, or if sense would intervene and deter them from their course. The balance is handled with admirable tact.

Strangely enough, Matt remains easy to empathize with throughout. He takes enough abuse at the hands of the Dirties that his plan to only target the “bad guys” who directly bullied him seems almost diplomatic. OK OK, so (potential) mass shooters are still hard to empathize with, but on the scale of justified to massacring twenty children with an assault rifle he's just a titch closer to justified. I don't support his choices, obviously, but the narrative allows us to understand them. Sometimes comedy helps us to understand tragedy, and it's a realistic approach. Evil is often banal. Matthew Johnson's performance is extremely naturalistic. He's either playing a version of himself, or he's a gifted actor. (I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.) Owen Williams' performance is more subtle, less external, but no less real.

The number of mass shootings in recent US history (let's extend that to recent North American history, as this is a Canadian film) is so absurd, perhaps it takes a comedy to highlight the absurdity. Nobody notices Matt and Owen as they plan the deed. The library doesn't ask to see Matt's student card when he requests blueprints of his school. No one bats an eye when they start measuring hallways or showing up with heavy-looking duffel bags. They openly discuss their intentions with other students, who assume they're joking. Parents are peripheral figures that barely show up on screen. Teachers are hilariously out of touch with what's going on amongst the students. All of this seems awfully plausible. I took three years of film production class in high school. Remove the school shooting aspect and the situations ring true.

I won't spoil the ending, other than to say that the film writes itself into a narrative corner and doesn't quite manage to knock down the walls. But this is a small quibble, overall The Dirties is subversive, hilarious, and yes... touching. I saw this early in the festival, but it's apparently available on VOD in the US. Or something. I'm Canadian, I don't know how that shit works. You know what to do, it's the best high school shooting mockumentary of the year.

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curtis (8 years ago) Reply

I'm Canadian...rented it from iTunes. ;)


Digger (8 years ago) Reply

"'s the best high school shooting mockumentary of the year"

Isn't that like being the most successful football team in Alaska?
(in other words, are there that many high school shooting mockumentarys out there that this one is the best?)

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