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Going In:

I stumbled onto this film quite accidentally.  It was on a long list of recommended movies, but once I saw it won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival, I had to see it.  I didn’t realize at the time what I was getting myself into.


The Dirties is basically a found footage film about a couple of high-school friends planning a school shooting.  It’s the least appealing concept one can think of, yet somehow filmmaker Mathew Johnson has transformed the concept into a film that completely captivates.  The vérité meets found footage style used in The Dirties creates a slow uneasy viewing environment.  It’s like watching a long fuse burn toward an inevitable conclusion, yet hoping against all hope that the spark will be extinguished.  Found footage films have become quite popular within the horror genre, but typically I find it’s a stylistic choice used to distract from a lack of substance.  The way it’s used here, however, makes the film all the more harrowing.

The film follows best friends Matt and Owen as they work on a project for their high school film class.  It’s a violent action fantasy where they take revenge on a group of real-life bullies in their school, called the dirties.  When their teacher demands they sanitize their film of profanity and violence, Matt decides he’d rather take it another direction.  What if they actually kill the dirties?  He’s convinced everyone will support the idea because they’ll only kill the bad guys.

So much of the film is spent with the two friends that the audience gets to know them pretty well.  They are film obsessed movie geeks, constantly quoting movies and spewing references to popular culture.  Mathew Johnson takes the lead role of Matt, and he plays the character with such energy and humor that he’s impossible not to like.  Matt takes very little seriously, and it’s this light hearted tone that settles comfortably upon the first half of the film.

Sprinkled among the many scenes of Matt and Owen joking around are some short sequences where the two are bullied by a group of kids at school (the dirties).  Some of the incidents are small, while others are more significant.  These scenes offer a stark contrast to the happy-go-lucky moments around them.  The audience sees the profound effect bullying has on the self-esteem and moment-to-moment attitudes of the guys.

As the bullying gets worse, Matt starts taking additional steps toward his plan to actually kill the dirties.  Because of the meta nature of the film-within-a-film presentation, it isn’t clear if he’s serious or saying these things just for the benefit of the film they’re making.  Even Owen, who’s becoming less interested in their project due to his interest in a girl at school, has a hard time taking Matt seriously.

Then the tone of the film begins to darken… and my heart sinks.


I won’t tell you where exactly the film goes, but this is one of the few times I actually found myself talking to the TV – talking to the kid with the camera that we know nothing about.  I will say this:  These kids aren’t killers.  They are funny, creative, relatable teenagers.  They are completely normal when viewed through the lens of their own home lives.  When looking at them from another perspective, they become loners – strange, goofy kids who are treated poorly just because of who they are.

And that’s what really got me thinking.  Because of the absolutely deplorable nature of school shootings, it’s easy for us to villainize those responsible.  What’s incredibly difficult is to humanize those involved, remembering that they too are people, and exploring what it is that broke these kids and made them think they had no other options.

As the film ended my wife was a bit shaken, asking me repeatedly, “This can’t be real right?  This isn’t real?”

Well, this specific incident is not, but it’s a story that permeates the headlines all too often.

This film isn’t rated, because no distributor has been brave enough to pick it up.

The Dirties Review
The Dirties is an entertaining and powerful film that will haunt you for days after watching it. (Watch it anyway)
The Good
  • Powerful use of Found Footage
  • Entertains and Horrifies
The Bad/Ugly
  • This will haunt you
8Overall Score
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

About The Author

By day I’m a producer/director at a video game development studio. By night, I’m… um… yeah, i’m usually just a more tired producer/director at a video game development studio. BUT, by weekend I’m a husband, father, and critic of all things.