Arriving on these shores following a hearty endorsement by Kevin Smith (who released this in the US under his distribution label), the Clerks director can certainly spot potential when it comes his way. The directorial debut of 26-year-old Canadian Matt Johnson (who is stars in the film, as well as co-writing, producing and editing), he’s fashioned a dark and unsettling socially relevant meta-mockumentary – think a Man Bites Dog-like psychological expose, shot in that faux verite style favoured by disposable US ‘reality’ shows like The Hills.
High school friends Matt and Owen exist on the fringes of their society. They are a pop culture-obsessed duo (the likes of Irreversible, Pulp Fiction and Being John Malkovich are referenced) who are forever picked on and harassed by the popular jocks in their class. Matt, the more immature and fanciful of the two, begins to retreat further into his own head, detaching himself from reality. The ‘Dirties’ of the title is both the name of the film-within-a-film the friends are shooting for a school project, and the nickname they apply to the bullies who constantly humiliate and torment them. As Matt’s hyperactivity and erratic behaviour begins to exasperate Owen, it’s clear that his ultimate aims for the film may not be as wholesome and entertaining as first envisioned.
Given the medium and sensitive subject matter Johnson is working with here, there was every chance The Dirties could have turned into the kind of throwaway, self-indulgent student effort the characters in the film are crafting. Even if some moments are occasionally a little uneven, Johnson has delivered a credible environment and conjured up a frighteningly real persona, often getting lost in the performance and blurring the line between reality and his character. It’s an unsettling and fascinating mix of real and staged footage (there’s a moment where ‘Matt’ casually chats with his own mother, who is unaware of being filmed) and the young filmmaker absolutely nails the scenes of bullying. They’re so uncomfortable in fact, that there’s an overriding desire to look away from the screen during those moments.
A fictitious crew (always off-camera) documenting the two characters every movement is another stylistic gamble which could have thrown up its own series of issues, yet it never feels contrived and as the film progresses, it’s clear Johnson has a strong grasp of the medium, building an acute sense of dread and unease, without using the traditional cinematic devices to achieve such an atmosphere. The (deliberate) lack of craft may infuriate some cinema purists, but this is a riveting film which explores another facet to the burgeoning sociopathic tendencies of a high school loner, in a realistic and all too relatable manner.