Review: ‘The Dirties’ uses found footage to take an ugly look at school violence

There’s no way I can be objective or dispassionate about a film like “The Dirties.” As I was watching it, the part of me that is a film critic, constantly analyzing and contextualizing, simply shut down. My experiences, my influences, my history… it makes it impossible for me for me to try to explain this in any terms except personal ones. That happens with films all the time for people, and it is an occupational hazard. I’ve had moments like that so many times over the years, and each and every time, I feel like this is why I am as fascinated today by the strange emotional magic trick of a movie as I was in 1977 when I first fell in love.

My teenage years were the John Hughes years, the ’80s, full-flush, and I went from a chubby nerdy ten year old kid in 1980 to a chubby nerdy twenty year old who couldn’t wait another day and moved to Los Angeles. The mid-point of that decade was the moment that made all the difference in the world, the moment where my family moved to Florida and I ended up enrolled in the same high school as Scott Swan, a kid who had just moved to the area from Pittsburgh, a kid who was exactly as movie crazy as I was.

There was a reason we both ended up enrolled there. The school had been built with a TV studio and it was wired for closed-circuit broadcasting to every room, so we could run a local network. They weren’t when we started there, but we had a teacher who put the two of us together as a sort of social experiment. Scott was in one class, I was in one class, and we each started making videos as soon as we got our hands on the video equipment. Very quickly, we started working together, and we ended up producing a daily live show for two full years of high school, a combination of school announcements and taped features that ran between five and ten minutes long. We worked together pretty much non-stop for those two years, and we had so many long days of shooting and editing and watching movies and writing scripts. If I hadn’t met Scott, I have no idea if I would have moved to Los Angeles in 1990. I have no idea if I would have done any of what I’ve done. I know I had the dream of making movies well before I met him, but I don’t know what would have unfolded in this other world where Scott and I didn’t work together.

We had some controversial moments during those early years, and I think if we did everything the exact same way but right now, things would not have gone nearly as well for us. We were raised on a pop culture diet of the ’70s and the early ’80s, and we spoke the same sort of mayhem and violence that lots of fans of that era of film did. We were raised as “Fangoria” kids. We had our minds blown by a dozen things we should have never seen on late-night cable. Slasher movies were as much a part of our vocabulary as Harryhausen or Universal Monsters or Godzilla. And some of the short films we made had slice-and-dice mayhem or “Body Snatcher” antics or ninja sword carnage. Hell, there was a short that was made by some of the other kids at the school that featured a teacher actually opening fire on a classroom full of kids with a machine gun, ending up completely blood spattered. It was played as a joke. I remember in our senior year, there was a teacher who was a particularly miserable bastard who loved to be make sure you knew he was a completely miserable bastard, and a group of us did a round-robin jet black fiction thing that we passed around secretly called “The 20 Deaths Of [Dickhead Teacher],” graphic and crazy and completely meant as a joke. Any one of those things could have ended our academic careers in a different environment. I can’t imagine any of that is possible in today’s post-Columbine world… right?

Well, that’s what “The Dirties” wonders, and from the exuberant feel of the film’s early segments to the horrible sick dread inspired by the film’s final third, this is a case of a movie that goes exactly where you think it’s going to that still manages to make the entire journey there feel real and authentic and completely, horribly understandable. I wish I didn’t understand the feelings that are articulated so clearly in the movie, but anyone who ever dreaded a single day of school because of other people will totally get it. And while every new event like this leads to people wringing hands and asking the same questions about “How?” and “Why?”, “The Dirties” seems to believe that we don’t see because we don’t want to see, that there is no surprise here anymore, and that it will happen as long as anyone is made to feel that this is an option or a solution.

The film is also an incredibly sharp piece about the way pop culture is filtered through the inner lives of the kids who spend their whole lives soaked in it. And this is another subject that I take very seriously. The reason I write about the way my kids are being introduced to media is because I think it’s a huge part of raising a family in the 21st century that is being ignored or overlooked. When you see the closing credits of the film, what looks at first like a clever ode to typography ends up feeling almost chilling when you put it into context.

So what is the context? Well, for the second time in September, and also the second time since I publicly said “I am done with found footage movies,” this is a well-made and expertly produced found footage movie. As with “Afflicted,” the film blurs the line between who the filmmakers are and what’s happening in the film, leaving you unsure what you’re looking at. That’s true in a number of films this year. Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” is a fantastic film that directly challenges you about your ideas regarding truth and reality through a camera lens. I hear “Bad Grandpa” is more than just a hidden-camera spin-off from “Jackass,” that it’s also a bonding story between Johnny Knoxville and the kid playing his grandson.

“Afflicted” does a sensational job of using real footage from the shared friendships of Derek Lee and Clif Prowse to make the obviously fictional stuff in the film that much more effective. In the case of “The Dirties,” Matt Johnson is director, writer, editor, actor, producer, and he’s dealt with this sort of subject matter before on film in his short “The Revenge Plot,” so this isn’t just something that he’s thinking about for this one movie right now. Johnson’s young, as is co-star Owen Williams, who plays Owen Williams, just as Johnson is playing Matt Johnson. I have no idea what their real backstory is, but in this film, they create enough of a history that I believe they are old friends who grew up looking out for each other, sharing their mutual language of fringe pop culture. I’ve never seen the rest of the cast, but I don’t think they’re all actually appearing as themselves. It’s really just with Matt and Owen that things are played as real, as the two of them attempt to survive high school and, in particular, a gang of bullies who routinely humiliate and punish them, a gang called “The Dirties.”

Matt and Owen just do their best to stay out of everyone’s way, but they make a film project for school that starts as their private joke, a hodgepodge of Hollywood movie moments, non-stop profanity, non-stop over-the-top violence, and a basic revenge power fantasy played out in living color. The more they work on it, the more Matt begins to take it all seriously. He starts making jokes about how they should shoot all the assholes in their school. He starts making jokes about planning it. He starts making jokes about where to get the guns. And by the time you’re neck-deep, those jokes aren’t really funny at all. Owen wants something else. Owen wants acceptance. In particular, he wants Chrissy (Krista Madison) to notice him, to love him. He has been watching her since the third grade. Long-sustained school crushes like that are called crushes for a reason, and I certainly still carry scars from those awkward moments when I finally tried to make my move, only to slam into inevitability so hard I left a mark. Mark is a mess, a kid who is constantly asking the people around him for help, but in a way that none of them are prepared to answer. He makes jokes of things as a defense, but that means no one believes him when he’s not joking, no matter what he says or how hard he tries.

One of the things I ask after any found footage movie now is “found by who?” If I can’t figure out a rational way for me to be seeing all the accumulated footage, then I have to call bullshit. “Apollo 18,” for example, is so blatant about not even trying to make the ending make sense that it left me angry at the movie after I saw it. All I ask is that you consider it in some way. In “The Dirties,” I think the film wants you to ask the question, “How was this filmed, and how am I supposedly seeing this?” After “The Dirties,” I think that’s a very provocative question that I don’t know the answer to yet. I think the film wants you to think about that carefully. Who is shooting all of this footage, and why? What are they going to do with it? I have a theory about that, but it’s pretty much the spoiler to the entire movie, and unfair to discuss until we can all have the conversation.

The evolution of how bullies are treated on film has been interesting. You look back at, say, the John Hughes movies, and there’s still a sort of Hollywood approach to things, but these days, bullies aren’t given the same leeway, and instead, it’s made to look as ugly as possible. It’s easy to see how someone like Matt gets pushed to his personal breaking point, but it’s also disturbingly easy to see how no one takes anything he says seriously enough to consider him a possible threat. It’s a very pointed comment on how even as we’ve given people so many new ways to communicate, it seems to have only magnified the voicelessness that people feel at times. “The Dirties” feels authentic all the way through, and it carries a bitter punch. It is a slight movie in terms of actual events that happen, but it grapples with some giant ideas and emotions in a very effective way.

You’ll be able to check it out for yourself when the film arrives in theaters and on-demand on October 4th.