High school shootings are such a morbid topic that it’s no surprise movies about them follow suit. Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” might be the high water mark for artistic meditations on the conditions that lead to teen massacres, but Matt Johnson’s “The Dirties” exists outside of those expectations. It’s a shooter story that creeps up on you with humor and personality, featuring characters so likable the thought that they could transform into killers is at first unthinkable — which is precisely the point.
Directed by Toronto Film School student Matt Johnson, “The Dirties” is a strange documentary-fiction hybrid that’s practically Godardian in its narrative trickiness: Johnson stars as a fictionalized teenage version of himself, a socially ostracized film geek eagerly concocting a movie project with his sole pal Owen (Owen Williams) about the duo taking revenge against the mean-spirited high school gang of the title. Partly constructed in found footage terms, in spite of an opening credit that sets the stage for an uncut look at events as movie Matt shot them, “The Dirties” continually makes it unclear what we’re watching: Johnson’s movie-within-a-movie or a movie about just that?
Filmed at a real high school, “The Dirties” contains footage of teens in their natural habitat alongside its lead performances, making it a cousin of sorts with Julia Loktev’s “Day Night Day Night,” in which a fictional suicide bomber lingered with real life crowds in Times Square. In Johnson’s film, the approach essentially transfers a premise largely understood through media disconnect into relatable circumstances. No other interpretive take on the national problem of bullying — not even the revealing documentary “Bully” — attempts a similar feat.
The blurred lines lend a playful quality to the proceedings that make its giddy young lead strangely relatable even when his plot starts to take on ramifications in the reality outside of it. The story transitions from a believable portrait of young culture junkies into a showcase of Matt’s burgeoning rage so well that it practically implicates viewers in the process.
When screening a rough cut of their shoot-em-up for mostly derisive peers as a class project, the pair describe “The Dirties” as a genre-bender, an apt description of the unique spell the actual project casts. “The Dirties” gives its characters a credible edge by taming them: Before they’re seen as the seething objects of aggressive bullies, they’re innocuous movie buffs. In the first scene, Matt encounters a younger kid in the park and briefly sketches out his project’s tropes, dropping canny references to “Irreveresible” and “The Usual Suspects” while casting Owen as “the other guy.” He doesn’t protest: “Yeah, I’m the other guy,” he mutters.
The light tone and sense of play emanating from Matt’s investment in his DIY production is pitted against the increasingly sinister nature of the scenario. There’s a shrewd argument hidden in these proceedings: Matt’s affinity for movies doesn’t turn him crazy — it simply provides an outlet for it. Throughout their antics, the cameraman is never identifies. It’s an ambitious device that doesn’t always work, only because the third party’s shaky cam cinematography tends to demand further explanation. But for the same reasons, it’s a provocative maneuver in that it carries a cold implication: The cameraman is all of us.
While “Elephant” similarly cast its two killers-to-be in similarly mournful light, it never strayed from the morose atmosphere dominating their mindset. “The Dirties” dares to give its main lunatics enough color to suggest that the “lunatic” label misses the point entirely. When Matt’s friend eventually looks at him with a mixture of horror and dread, Matt responds rather simply that “it’s me, dude.” Exactly: “The Dirties” places viewers close enough to its protagonist’s psychological instability that they don’t even realize when they’ve entered it. “Trust me, this is a movie,” Matt insists when Owen tries to call the whole thing off. “The Dirties” derives its chief power by imbuing that statement with constant uncertainty.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Kevin Smith’s Movie Club and Phase 4 release “The Dirties” on VOD this weekend in addition to theatrical bookings in New York, Los Angeles and Canada. The movie has previously won awards at festivals ranging from Slamdance to Sarasota, so strong word of mouth and Smith’s association with the project may generate decent returns on VOD.