Dallas IFF Review: The Dirties


The Dirties

The Dirties won Best Narrative Feature and the Spirit of Slamdance Award at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival, and made its way this week to the Dallas International Film Festival. While producer and cinematographer Jared Raab was in Dallas, writer/director and lead actor Matthew Johnson was at a screening at the Victoria TX Independent Film Festival (VTXIFF).

The Dirties revolves around two friends who share a passion for movies, Matt (Matthew Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams). They are subjected to constant bullying while working on a movie for a high-school class project. After their initial film fails, the boys decide to create a revenge movie around their real-life antagonists, whom they refer to as "The Dirties." While Owen reconnects with a childhood sweetheart, Matt becomes obsessed as the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur. 

Johnson and writer/producer Matthew Miller drew inspiration for The Dirties from the 1992 French satire Man Bites Dog, a dark portrayal of what happens when a documentary film crew becomes involved in the actions of their subject, a ruthless criminal and killer. The pair also studied home videos of bullying from Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to develop a more realistic view rather than the stereotypical Hollywood over-exaggeration.

What is remarkable about The Dirties is that it was shot without a script in a documentary style with two cameras constantly filming. The lead actors worked mostly from cue cards for a sense of what certain scenes should entail -- however, many background characters were participants unaware that a film was being made, who therefore act quite naturally. One of the most chilling conversations comes from an interaction between Matt and his mother, Johnson's real-life mother who also was not clued into the plot.

As unsettling as hand-held cinematography can be at times for some viewers including myself, this "found footage" hallmark style of shooting fits perfectly for this movie. For the filmmakers to have filmed The Dirties in a more conventional manner would detract from the realism of this film and its protagonists.

To dismiss The Dirties as exploitative of recent tragedies is a tragedy in itself -- Johnson and Miller started making this film long before the Sandy Hook incident that occurred the week of their first cast and crew screening. The filmmakers have publicly stated that they recognized the potential for backlash from current events, and respect the sensitivity of the subject.

The question shouldn't be "Is it too soon after these tragic events?" but rather "Why hasn't a film this insightful and intelligent been made sooner?" The Dirties addresses the complexity of school shooting tragedies and the more easily identified contributing factors, from bullying to mental health as well as access to weapons, without placing judgment. More importantly, this story puts a recognizable face to the villains, and it is sobering to witness.

I strongly recommend The Dirties as required viewing for parents, teachers and counselors, as well as anyone who is willing to engage in a dialogue about a critical subject impacting our youth. The movie screens once more at Dallas IFF tonight at 10:15 pm at The Magnolia.

If you haven't seen The Dirties yet, wait to watch the following Q&A from the VTXIFF due to spoilers. Otherwise check out the engaging conversation with Johnson about the making of The Dirties below: