Ripples of genuine laughter spread through the auditorium as we watch Matt (portrayed by director, producer and editor Matt Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) indulging in their boyish enthusiasm for filmmaking. Movie geeks will love the littering of Tarantino quotes and a particularly entertaining reenactment of a ‘Being John Malkovich’ scene, but even the humour of the first 20 minutes is interspersed with an inkling that something darker is to come. As Matt’s intentions for the film start to seep into reality, our laughter becomes more uncertain and eventually is replaced by an unnerved silence and tension that you could cut with a knife.
‘The Dirties’ is a fake documentary (not to be confused with a ‘mockumentary’) inspired by the Columbine High School massacre of 1999. The distinction between the two aforementioned genres is subtle, but important; ‘The Dirties’ is so believable that you could accept it as genuine footage from the events leading up to such a tragedy. It’s not making fun of its subjects for the sake of entertainment, it’s representing them and all of their aspects to create a well rounded and realistic portrayal of their situation. This is a truly masterful example of the genre’s ability to pose important questions about the society in which we live.
Matt and Owen are creating a film about taking bloody revenge on their high school bullies, dubbed ‘The Dirties’. They deal with the constant torment by laughing at their plight. As the frequency and intensity of the abuse increases, their humour becomes occasionally peppered with phrases of joking intent such as, “If we actually went and killed all the Dirties… Imagine if we showed that movie to class.” We, the audience, continue to chuckle, comforted by the fact that they are laughing themselves.
Whether or not the boys will actually carry out their plan is the question that makes this film so compelling. The performances are so believable that the two protagonists become recognisable as people that you went to school with; who you may have seen suffering and who you might not have helped.
Aside from its poignancy, the flick boasts a fantastic soundtrack (which the majority of the budget was spent on) and innovative cinematography that places you right in the middle of the action. Johnson’s masterpiece provides the perfect argument for why film festivals exist and are so highly valued in the film industry. Having been released by the Kevin Smith Movie Club in 2013, the film was only screened at one theatre in Toronto for a very limited run and, despite being available on Netflix USA, viewing it on the big screen and reacting as part of an audience takes the viewing to a whole new level. I feel so privileged to have had that opportunity at Melbourne International Film Festival and I urge you to take any opportunity to watch this with a room full of people. You probably won’t breathe for 83 minutes.