It’s gut-wrenching to wake up in the morning and learn that another violent spree has occurred inside the land of the free and the home of the brave–especially when these attacks include children. Unfortunately, gun violence and violence in general are on their way to becoming the norm for American citizens. We are becoming numb to it, and that is the most tragic fact of all.
What’s even harder to take in than someone’s violent acts against undeserving people is watching the way the media reacts to these events (which ultimately influences people’s reactions the way the culture responds). Within hours, pundits and the media take one of two sides: one side attacks the Second Amendment and thinks a world without guns is a world without violence; the other side attacks violent video games and movies and claim this is what makes people violent. Both are, of course, ignorant and misguided.
The Dirties was a 2013 Canadian film distributed by Phase 4 Films and The Kevin Smith Movie Club. It dealt with the school shooting phenomenon head on. It didn’t do it in a typical Hollywood fashion where it preached to the audience or tried to present characters in a contrived way. The Dirties was the first movie to present a realistic look at what makes a young person violent and what makes our culture so distant and removed from the real issues.
Matt Johnson directed and starred in his own feature (he made it while he was in film school). He plays Matt and his best friend is Owen (Owen Williams). They are two high school outcasts that love movies and dream of the days when they can leave high school and really start their lives. The two are never brought across as saints or representations of larger points in any way (looking at you, Fruitvale Station). The two are just quirky guys that can’t find their place in the world. They’re funny, they’re young and they’re confused.
The rest of the high school is very much like any other high school in America (they shot in an actual school with real students). There are bullies, cliques, etc. Nothing is ever symbolic in The Dirties. What makes the scenes where Owen and Matt are bullied so powerful is the fact that they are recognizable to anyone that has ever stepped foot in a high school, especially a public high school.
Matt and Owen are trying to make a movie about two guys that decide to go after “the dirties” who are supposed to be gangsters and all around bad people. After showing the flick in their film class, Matt and Owen are bullied even more. Their creativity and differences are seen as weird and strange instead of unique or the product of talent. Owen moves on rather quickly, but Matt begins losing touch with reality as he recognizes his school “bullies” as the real “dirties.”
Matt begins pitching Owen a new movie where “the dirties” are really the bullies of their school and they are two outcasts that kill them all in a strange violent fantasy. The problem is that the further Matt goes with his planning, the more we worry he may be planning more than a movie.
The Dirties presents two friends and one kid’s inability to deal with the ostracization that often goes hand in hand with high school. The film never attacks bullies (the media needs to learn the old adage that two wrongs don’t make a right), violent video games and movies (someone is not influenced by violent media unless they are already unstable) or guns (even director Johnson has said that the idea of taking people’s “toys” away will make a difference is absurd). The movie’s real point is to show someone’s progression from innocent and funny kid to school shooter. It humanizes the school shooter without ever sympathizing or celebrating him, which is a difficult feat.
Beyond being the most important and smartest movie of 2013, The Dirties was a groundbreaking achievement on a film-making level as well. The film plays with the “found footage” theme and builds layer upon layer on the story with what seems like ease. We see the movie Owen and Matt are making for school, the movie Matt is supposedly planning on making and the actual relationship between the two friends all spliced together. We feel ourselves losing touch with reality as strongly as Matt is as the story progresses although we are never thrown into his perspective for the sake of exploitative art. We are detached and shown everything from a camera held by an unknown third party.
Watching The Dirties is an experience that will stick with you. It was the greatest film of 2013 because it broke new ground as both a film and as art in that it was an examination of a culture that breeds violent young people who aren’t accepted or given enough room to blossom into their own unique persons.
Most conservatives can agree that the issue of school shootings and large scale violent acts is an issue that can’t be solved with a law change or another restriction on citizens. The real issue is one the simple minded media will most likely never be able to accept: it’s a cultural matter that can only change if we choose to change as a culture and as a people. The issue begins with the way our young people are taught in school and the way certain aspects of personality are ostracized, and it also touches on the way young people are taught to treat each other.
The Dirties was the first movie to show the issue for what it is. It’s also one of the most gut-wrenching and powerful films I’ve ever seen because we know what the movie is really about even as we fall in love with two funny and young characters and get swept back up in the issues of youth.