The Dirties is a realistic story of the lead up to a school shooting by two friends who have been bullied by a group they call “The Dirties.” It looks at the subtlety of bullying today and it is this subtlety that draws the audience in and makes them a witness of bullying.
“The audience is put into the place of complacency,” explains director, screenwriter and actor Matthew Johnson. “[We can] relate to every side of bullying.”
The movie is stunningly realistic, that is thanks in part to the improvisation of the cast, with the entire film, but one line, being improvised. The film is shown documentary-style, by unseen cameramen, presumably friends of the main characters, Matt (Matthew Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams). Johnson and Wilson play convincing high school students, which is especially impressive from Williams, a real-life high school teacher, with no prior acting experience. They portray victims honestly as they are complacent to the tormenting. This is until Matt takes their school film project too far, and wants to make the plot- a school shooting- a reality.
It is a realistic portrayal of how there are no real signs of a school shooting. With students not taking their threats seriously, and parents and teachers not understanding or looking out for the subtleties of bullying. Films often portray school shooters having telltale signs, or symptoms before they go on a rampage, while in reality this is usually not the case. After a school shooting we often hear how normal the kids are, and how the parents didn’t have a clue. These kids blend in, they’re not outwardly awkward, or violent or aggressive. They reach a breaking point in where they believe there is no other option.
The Dirties portrays this brilliantly, through cut scenes of Matt asking his mother what a psychopath is and going on a trip with his older cousin to shoot cans for fun. Even the teacher subconsciously makes fun of Matt and Owen when he introduces their film project as “gender-bending,” instead of genre bending. Johnson showcases the subtlety of bullying through events that lead up to a horrific event. He normalizes Matt and Owen, refusing to portray them as monsters. We see their humour, they embarrassment and finally their anger, as they cope with bullying from all around them. Nothing about it is “in-your-face,” which is why this movie works so well. It feels as though the audience is getting an inside look at the mind of a high school shooter, without the clichés moviegoers are so used to seeing.
Another element of realism comes from the fact that things happen in the film that are not necessarily for plot purposes. There is a scene where Matt gets bullied in the hallway by one of “The Dirties” who won’t let go of his hand, as his best friend Owen looks on. As the movie progresses Owen gets hit in the head by a rock, and Matt asks if he is okay, as Owen brushes him off. The thing about fiction is it makes sense, where as in real life not everything has a purpose. Owen just stood by as Matt was bullied because he just did. This adds to the realism of the film showcasing their personalities; it’s not used as a setup for a more dramatic film to make one character resentful of the other, or one better than the other. Things happen organically throughout the film, as Johnson shows the gradual descent of getting back at the bullies.
Filmed in the GTA The Dirties was picked up by Kevin Smith’s Kevin Smith Movie Club after they won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature and the Filmmaker Choice Award at the Slamdance Film Festival earlier this year. It was screened as a part of Toronto’s After Dark Film Festival Spotlight Screening where it won Audience Award for best Spotlight Film.
The Dirties offers a realistic look at the life of a bullied high school student without falling into the clichéd portrayals of bullying victims. It makes the audience a witness of the lead-up to a school shooting, giving an honest look at the inner workings of a tormented high school student.
The Dirties is currently playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, check out their website for screening times.
The Toronto After Dark Film Festival takes place October 17-25 at the Scotiabank Theatre on Richmond Street West.