Slamdance 2013 Review: THE DIRTIES Asks The Question 'Can You Laugh With The Boy Holding The Gun?'

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
The short answer is, "Yes."

The slightly longer answer is, "Quite a lot, but with a hell of a caveat."

And the longest answer is the rest of this review.

Looking like the freshest-faced 16-year old you could imagine, Canadian filmmaker Matt Johnson crab-walked, moon-walked -- or maybe he was doing the robot -- onto the internet scene with the out-there, mockdoc web series Nirvana The Band The Show. The Dirties is his first feature, which he also stars in as... Matt Johnson.

Matt and his buddy Owen Williams (Owen Williams) play high school film geeks who are the target of a group of bullies they dub 'The Dirties.' As a way to cope with the abuse the boys decide to make a fantasy revenge film starring themselves as a pair of elite cops/assassins/secret-agents/badasses. Their mission: To once and for all end the reign of terror caused by The Dirties.

The boys every move is captured by a band of documentary filmmakers, who are completely complacent to what the lads are doing -- absolute flies on the wall.

As laughably bad as the boys' movie may be, it is a project full of passion and invention. For them this is the greatest in-joke ever, Matt reveling in every aspect, gleefully bouncing from roles behind the camera and in front of, Owen quietly following his pal along this dark comic path. These are the movies teenagers make who are able to have whole conversations cobbled together just from The Simpsons quotes. Matt is not afraid to make a fool of himself, deflecting any pain he may hold with an over-the-topness that is infectious as it can be annoying. In other words, this was me as a kid. Matt lines his walls with Marvel Comics, Magic Cards and every kind of movie poster imaginable. His mantle is decked out with Nina Turtles action figures and vehicles -- a mecca of geekdom, a place of respite from the hallways of high school. This is our childhood in all its pop culture glory.

'The Dirties' is an absolute failure in their film class but a personal triumph for Matt. Determined to aim for even greater things he begins to plot out the sequel, only this time the deaths will be real. As he tells Owen, "Wouldn't it be great if we came into school with guns, and had t-shirts that said' We're Only Here For The Bad Guys'?"

As Matt collects blueprints of the school, makes a proper whose-who list in The Dirties, and gets in practice with a slew of heavy-duty guns, Owen rekindles an elementary school friendship with Chrissy (Krista Madison), now one of the prettiest and popular girls in school. At first, Matt is encouraging of Owen's desires, coming up with hair-brained schemes such as baking a cake and then running into the cafeteria with it and telling Chrissy he stole it from a home ec class. Though he obliges his friend's idea, Owen would rather work on his guitar skills. The Dirties is as much a bromance as it is anything else.

What the real Matt Johnson and his small team (including co-writer/co-editor Evan Morgan and DP/producer Jared Raab) have done is something so fresh, so bizarre and just as sincere as it is unsettling... well... I'm still trying to wrap my brain around it four days after my first viewing. As genuinely hilarious as the film is, from top to bottom, The Dirties is not a film to provoke. It is far too smart for that. Yes, the film is zany and goofy, brimming with the euphoria of youth, but it is also a surprisingly gentle and tender film. Even as we watch Matt step into school, a dufflebag full of weapons over his shoulder, it is hard to see him as an out and out monster.

And that's just it. Not only do we absolutely hold sympathy for these characters, but I can say personally I have empathy for them. Whenever a school shooting happens, the idea of a person or people committing an act of evil suddenly pushes aside the fact they are a human being, that there is a lot more going on there. The Dirties proves this better than perhaps any movie that focuses on the subject of school shootings that I have ever seen. It doesn't want to accept that this is only a 'topical' subject. We can change gun laws, we can make sure people get the psychiatric help they need, but until we accept that every single one of these young men who pick up a gun and choose to kill another person is a human being and not a monster, things will not change. Matt Johnson knows this. And he's ready to share his thoughts with mad style and intelligence.             
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