The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Dirties

Making a movie about school shootings is a dangerous thing to do. The risk of being exploitative or, even worse, unintentionally making it look appealing to troubled kids, is high. So a certain amount of credit must be paid to The Dirties for avoiding both of these traps. Rather than focusing on violence (although there is some), the film adopts a creative approach to the subject, attempting to explore how perpetrators of such unthinkable acts get to the point of action.

Shot in the “found footage” format, The Dirties stars Matthew Johnson and Owen Williams as, appropriately, Matt and Owen, two movie-obsessed high school students. Tired of being bullied by a group of mean kids they've dubbed “the Dirties,” they decide on an unusual method of coping: making a home movie that incorporates actual footage of them being harassed with a faux plot in which they exact a bloody revenge. (What we see is presented as their work-in-progress.) As the project moves forward and undergoes some unfortunate revisions, Matt begins to take things a little too seriously. He starts to fantasize about what would happen if they shot the bullies for real.

The Dirties was directed and co-written by star Johnson, who deserves much credit for making the film feel authentic. The whole “found footage” thing falls apart when viewers stop believing the reality of what they're seeing. Filming in a real school with actors who actually are teenagers (or at least still look like they are), he keeps the illusion alive throughout. He and Williams give credible performances, too. The characters pepper their speech with movie quotes, as though continually participating in a shared in-joke. I was reminded of my own adolescence, when friends and I would do the exact same thing. Many of the references are pretty funny, which helps make The Dirties fun for hardcore film fans.

There's something admirable in the way The Dirties uses cinema to get at a deeper message. Not once does it slip into “Afterschool Special” mode. Instead, there's a suggestion that movies, with their ability to provide catharsis, can be an outlet for troubled kids. By indulging their cinematic whims, both as viewers and as amateur filmmakers, Matt and Owen discover a refuge from the troubles they face daily. Yet The Dirties does not blame violent entertainment for things like school shootings. Far from it. Instead, it shows how the real culprit is a disconnect from reality. When a person stops accepting fantasy at its own level and starts trying to live it out, the potential is there for bad things to happen. There's no easy answer to what motivates shooters, but the film at least takes a stab at getting inside the mindset.

As respectable as it is thematically, The Dirties does bear the marks of a filmmaker who isn't fully formed yet. The dirty secret of found footage movies is that they still have to continually advance a plot, all while making it look as though there is no master plan to what the audience is seeing. A number of scenes here feel kind of random and pointless. Until the last half-hour, there is not a strong narrative thread unspooling. The pace of The Dirties sometimes suffers as a result. There are moments that drag, and sequences whose inclusion don't seem to serve any real purpose. As interesting and involving as certain sections are, others border on dullness. Given that Matt and Owen are such film nuts, you'd think their own creation would be tighter and more focused than it is. The Dirties is also under-served by an abrupt ending that doesn't provide as much of a punch as it clearly intends.

While not a perfect realization of its premise, The Dirties is still a sufficiently provocative film that marks Matthew Johnson as a director to watch. He clearly wants to tackle big ideas with intelligence, and this is a promising beginning.

Oh, and one more thing: The Dirties has what may be the greatest end credit sequence in history. Trust me.

( 1/2 out of four)

Note: The Dirties is available in theaters and on iTunes starting Oct. 4.

The Dirties is unrated R but contains violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes.

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