School violence is always a sketchy subject in film. Before the tragic events at Columbine High in 1999, the majority of films that dealt with school violence tended to be gang- or minority-related. One huge exception is 1976’s Massacre at Central High, in which a new student already brimming with psychosis declares war on the reigning yuppie clique at school. Post-Columbine, the focus became school shootings performed by kids pushed too far. Some are miserably exploitative (Duck! The Carbine High Massacre) and others are preachy to the point of silliness, like Uwe Boll’s Heart of America. Yes, Uwe Boll directed a serious movie about school shootings.
The better ones leave judgement up to the audience. Films like Van Sant’s Elephant and Ben Coccio’s Zero Day parallel the Columbine tragedy without striving to provide any answers or shoving a message down your throat. But no matter how much weight a school violence film carries, they’re always inherently depressing. Walking the fence is director/writer/star Matthew Johnson’s film The Dirties – an unsettling film that feels fresh and compassionate, but also unfocused in its statement. Whatever the hell that statement is.
Like Zero Day, The Dirties is shot in found-footage style. The camera follows best buds Matt (Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) as they shoot a film for school. Their film is titled “The Dirties,” which is what they call the shithead bullies that torment them at school. The potent moments of bullying in the film eerily mirror the tapes made by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold before the Columbine massacre. Like when Matt and Owen are walking down the hall and a bully body checks one of them to the floor. Granted, Matt is wearing a fur coat the first time we see him get picked on. Call me old fashioned, but wearing a fur coat to high school is like wearing a deer costume in the woods during hunting season.
Their student film is a revenge-fantasy against the Dirties, with Matt and Owen starring as rogue cops who talk almost exclusively in movie quotes. Their film is filled with references from The Usual Suspects, Trainspotting, and, oddly enough, Being John Malkovich. When they screen the film in front of the class, they’re laughed outta the room. Not only that, but predictably their film about killing bullies has further enraged their real-life tormenters.
Frustrated, the two friends start joking about making another film – one where they kill the Dirties for real. Owen, who is at the same time rekindling an old romance at school, doesn’t take Matt’s homicidal film pitch seriously. Like everything else his friend talks about, shooting the bullies is probably just another one of his violent film fantasies. Matt’s an excitable film nerd whose entire world is one big movie reference. Most people reading this will easily relate to him.
The scary part is, no one takes Matt’s threats seriously. You hear about incidents like this all the time in the real world. Even when he practically waves his “warning signs” like a flag, it’s shrugged off by Owen and the others at school. He requests blueprints of the school, makes a film about murdering bullies, and even tells other students about his plans. It’s shit that every teacher nowadays knows to be on the look out for, but still most folks sadly don’t take seriously. The film depicts this ignorant disregard realistically.
So the warning signs are there, but why is movie-obsessed Matt planning all this? And what statement is The Dirties attempting to make about the effects of violent movies on the youth? It seems to be saying that Matt’s lost sight of reality – this is echoed when his mother defines to him what “crazy” really means. It’s almost like the film is taking the side of the morons who are so quick to blame movies and video games for school shootings. No alternatives besides bullying and media are presented, but it feels like the movie wanted to dig deeper, without success. The message of the film is very unfocused in this way.
The Dirties isn’t a complete miss though. It’s an exciting film and it’s strangely addicting to watch Matt go through the motions with a huge grin on his face. When he starts mock-shooting up the school with gun-fingers, I couldn’t help but give him a courtesy laugh. Like when a schizo on the street starts talking to you about how he’s going to kill someone. It’s kinda like that. You laugh because you don’t wanna be involved with Matt’s phony gunplay, but as a movie nerd you can’t help but be charmed by him.
The final minutes of the film are genuinely tense as it builds to an inevitable conclusion. In the end though, The Dirties‘ attempt to make a statement about school shootings is too foggy to really make an impact. It’s better and more empathetic than most movies on the subject, but not truly effective. You’ll probably be entertained watching it and if not, blame Kevin Smith, who’s helping to distribute the film. Way to hustle, Matthew Johnson.