Comedies don’t get much darker, thought provoking, and ultimately harrowing than Toronto director Matt Johnson’s The Dirties. From the creator of the largely goofball and loveable comedic webseries Nirvana The Band The Show comes a similarly styled tale of a pair of loserly nerds, but to more serious and emotionally believable depths. What begins as a similar meta-commentary with Johnson playing himself in a film within a film within real life (trust me, that will make sense once you see the film) becomes an incredibly ballsy statement about the dangers of art imitating life.
Matt Johnson and Owen Williams are a pair of high school teens chronically bullied by the titular clique on a daily basis. The film proper begins in medias res as Matt and Owen try to create their own fictionalized homage to tough-guy, Tarantino-eque action cinema where they play a couple of undercover figures trying to take down bullies from the inside. When their final cut doesn’t go over well with their teacher because of violent content involving a school shooting and chronic swearing, Matt doesn’t take it very well and starts looking at his product in a newer and vastly more psychopathic light.
Johnson’s take on this material is as bracing as it is creative, doing what all the best examples of faux-documentaries have in common, a true sense of escalation and a rug pulling that warrants the film existing in the first place. Even the above the title inclusion of executive producer Kevin Smith (who purchased the film earlier this year during a successful run on the festival circuit) works to subvert audience expectation, because it starts exactly like one would thing a production from Smith or Johnson would shake out before becoming its own beast entirely.
At the outset, it’s easy to both laugh at and sympathize with Matt and Owen. With Matt’s love of fake Shearling coats to look like a badass and his bizarrely off-the-cuff references to Irreversable, he’s exactly the kind of kid one would snicker at and would find either immediately endearing or insufferable. That distinction is left entirely up to the audience without Johnson giving any clues if one should sympathize with him or immediately recognize Owen as the true brains of the operation. The first half certainly relies heavily on the dryly comedic anarchy of Johnson’s previous cult curio, but here everything comes with a remarkable degree of calculation.
As with most film about making another film based out of real pain and personal love, a rift begins to develop between Owen and Matt as friends, and the film begins a descent into the dramatic that feels almost more uncomfortably real than Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. Without spoiling much of anything (and despite it kind of being telegraphed early on in the film, making the most interesting aspects of the film hard to talk about), the film will become divisive between viewers who don’t want to think critically about what they’re seeing and those willing to go along with the progression of Matt as a character (and in many ways, as a filmmaker on screen and off). The transition from comedy to drama is effortless, but something about the material cries out for multiple watches to truly wrap one’s head around the emotional complexity of it all. It’s all amounts to a messy movie within a great movie about a messy and heartbreaking situation. It’s filmmaking with a lot of heart, but also an incredible amount of guts that most people wouldn’t be able to match. It’s sure to get people talking at the very least.