Kevin Smith is hardly the most consistent filmmaker on the planet. So when the director of Clerks, Chasing Amy and Zack and Miri Make a Porno announces that a particular movie “is the most important film you’ll see all year” and this movie just happens to be one he has a part interest in as distributor, well, raise high the caution flags, cinema-goer.
Thing is, The Dirties actually is pretty fine fare. Maybe not 2013’s most important film but quite possibly the best 84-minute Canadian feature ever made about high school and bullying on a $10,000 budget. This is not damning with faint praise, rather a caveat to those moviegoers who like their entertainment to have bona fide stars, steady camera-work, clarity of tone and unambiguous moral uplift.
The Dirties, shot largely in high schools in Toronto and Peterborough, Ont., in 2011, using a mostly improvised script, never looks more than low-budget, nor has any aspirations to be otherwise. As such, it’s both a stunning showcase for the feverish intelligence of director Johnson – who, at 28, seems to have drunk long at the well of Quentin Tarantino – and the perfect cinematic equivalent of the shambolic nature of contemporary adolescence. In short, a deserving winner of best narrative feature honours at this year’s Slamdance indie film festival in Park City, Utah.
The Dirties’s major aesthetic conceit is one of moviedom’s trickiest, namely, the film within the film or, perhaps more precisely, the making-of-the-movie movie. It’s the story of two nebbishly brainy high-schoolers named Matthew Johnson (played by … Matthew Johnson) and Owen Williams (played by … Owen Williams), who, for a class project, are making a funky film in which they play elite assassins wreaking vengeance on a klatsch of real-life bullies they call the Dirties. Their revenge scenarios, inspired largely by Johnson’s movie-marinated imagination (He’s fond of saying things like, “Owen, do that walk from Malcolm X that Spike showed Denzel” and “the scene is Danny Glover in Royal Tenenbaums”), are violent but cartoonishly so and mostly within the realm of magical thinking. However, after one of the Dirties draws blood by smacking Owen with a rock, things take a more sinister turn. Says Matt: “We shoulda actually shot those guys.” More run-ins with the Dirties ensue and soon Matt and Owen are out in the bush, firing real carbines, pistols and semi-automatic rifles at bottles, cans and watermelons.
None or few of these antics are seen explicitly from Matt or Owen’s point of view. There is, in fact, a third person on the duo’s movie-making team, Jared the cinematographer (played by Jared Raab, who also is one of the movie’s co-producers). As in virtually every feature film, the viewer never sees “Jared” (or Jared), only what he’s shooting from behind the camera. But, of course, Matt and Owen do and occasionally Matt speaks directly to their cinematographer, directing his hand-held camera movements, implicating him as a sort of digital Boswell to Matt’s progressively unhinged Dr. Johnson. As this is happening, Owen’s bromance with Matt begins to fade as he begins to win the attention of the attractive Chrissy (Krista Madison), whom he’s fancied since Grade 3. What’s tricky about this gambit is that it grants Jared no moral agency. While the viewer witnesses the sad logic of Matt’s unravelling (“Wouldn’t it be great,” he says at one point to Owen, “if we came into school with guns wearing T-shirts that said, ‘We’re Only Here for the Bad Guys’?”) and becomes increasingly uneasy about his murderous impulses, Jared remains the silent, surveillant, unblinking eye, like Matt seemingly unable or unwilling to distinguish reel from real.
Formalistically, intellectually, it’s a clever conceit, the kind that would get a round of high-fives in film school (Johnson, in fact, attended York University’s film program). Emotionally, plausibly, not so much. Still, The Dirties is a bravura debut for Johnson, best known, if he’s known at all, for his online mockumentary series Nirvana the Band the Show. For a film mining a sensational and timely issue and loaded with B-movie references, The Dirties in no way feels like an exploi-flick, thanks to Johnson’s empathic intelligence and sincerity and a knack for conveying character and milieu. Give this dude a good budget and he could make a Pulp Fiction, except better.