In this age of a raging debate over gun regulation and childhood bullying as talked about an issue as we have in the zeitgeist, the idea of creating a film revolving around a fictionalized duo of high school students planning their dream burst of violence against those in their school who antagonize them is more than a tad bit controversial. However, with masterpieces like Gus van Sant’s Elephant proving that the idea of a film revolving around a school shooting can not only be engrossing but utterly illuminating, a new micro-budget drama tosses its hat in this year’s film ring, and may be one of the most interesting dramas of 2013.
Entitled The Dirties, director Matthew Johnson introduces us to two high-school students on the outskirts of their social universe. Seemingly alone in the school save for those who they are seen playing games like Magic with during lunch, the two are in a film class and have one hell of an assignment. For their big short film, they have decided to take on the bullies of their school (known as the titular Dirties), and have crafted a fictionalized tale in which they finally get their revenge. While the short the pair makes only makes things worse for them, the leader of the duo (played by Johnson) decides to take things a step further and plot out what will be his revenge for all the years of bullying and antagonizing.
Marked by a brazenly charming sense of humor and a pair of leads so deeply influenced by popular culture that they make the Spring Breakers collective look like they’ve never seen a Tarantino film before, The Dirties is a powerful, haunting and utterly engrossing meditation on a youth culture both inspired by the media they take in and spurned by one another’s incessant need for psychological violence.
At first glance, this film may, aesthetically, look like another type of found footage drama that takes all too much interest in setting up its sense of style and not enough time in building the world. However, while the film does hold within it a very fly-on-the-wall sense of verite style (it owes a great deal to films from directors like Allan King, as much as a name like van Sant), it is so kinetic and perfectly established that the film’s sense of style and visual language becomes as thrilling as anything the film has to offer narratively.
But the realism truly comes from the performances. Led by Johnson himself, in what is as manic and troublingly authentic a performance as we’ve seen all year, takes on the role of Matthew, a loner on a mission to let “The Dirties” know just how big of bastards they truly are. When he begins to take this seemingly off the cuff remark about actually taking violent revenge on those who have wronged he and Owen (Owen Williams) too seriously, things take a turn from off-putting social commentary into full blown, aggressive social bombast, a type of in your face intellectual abrasiveness that, in a world of heightened emotions about various social and political topics, is fitting not only of this topic but also of this very generation. A truly haunting and unforgettably raw and genuine performance, Johnson is just as interesting an on screen presence as he proves to be behind the camera.
While the film itself may be a tad off putting even for the most hardened viewers, there is such power behind each and every moment of this film that it is as vital and pertinent a motion picture as we’ve seen from the indie US ranks all year. Capped off by a burst of violence so sudden that it will be hard to ever forget, this film will not only leave people gasping come the final act, but, hopefully, it will leave every viewer talking about one of today’s most important youth issues. A compelling meditation on bullying, the film will leave audiences stunned and leave them with insights that not only make an engrossing dramatic picture, but make for one of the most important American films you’ll this 2013. A film as lacking in judgment levied to those on screen, a film this chock full of empathy deserves to be seen by anyone and everyone.