As School Shootings Pile Up, 'The Dirties' Seeks Answers
School shootings occur with such alarming regularity (the latest at Sparks Middle School in Nevada), that the lack of a definitive Hollywood "take" on the topic seems increasingly glaring. What few films have surfaced -- namely, Gus Van Sant's 2003 drama Elephant and 2011's We Need to Talk About Kevin -- have tackled the subject with chilly distance, as if we were observing events through a telescopic gunsight. The first season of FX's American Horror Story, meanwhile, dared to stare the devil right in the eye, but suffered from its use of a hoary device in which the shooter's ghostly victims confront their attacker.
All of which is to say that The Dirties, a come-from-nowhere (well, from Canada) indie film that took the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative at last January's Slamdance festival and earned the admiration and support of Kevin Smith, is the closest we've yet come to a school shooting movie with something new and insightful to say on the topic. Conceived and directed by and starring Matt Johnson -- a 28-year-old student director from Toronto, currently enrolled at York University -- the hard-to-define film seeks to put a human face on the perpetrators of these incomprehensible acts.
Matt plays a loose version of himself in The Dirties, a hyperactive, hyper-intelligent high-schooler obsessed with pop culture, and we follow him as he goes about making his own genre film with his best friend, Owen (played by Johnson's real friend, Owen Williams). Their movie within this found-footage movie is a revenge fantasy, in which the duo -- who are bullied relentlessly by a group of tough-talking jocks who call themselves "the Dirties" -- get even with their tormentors. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Matt is extremely serious about carrying out his plans. The climactic shooting scene plays out as matter-of-factly as one might imagine they do in real life, made all the more horrific by the fact that we've come to know, like and even sympathize with Matt by the time it happens.
"It's not what you think," Johnson recently told The Hollywood Reporter of the frequently funny film. "It's not a Wayans Brothers version of a school shootings movie. We approached it as though our childhood was the childhood of people that would go on to do a school shooting." Johnson, whose research for The Dirties led him to study footage of Columbine High School shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, says his goal was to look past vilification to the causes of gun violence.
"We call them 'monsters' and 'evil' and as soon as that label is put on somebody, you cant really take a step forward in the rehabilitation of society or even of that individual -- because they're written out of the book of humanity," Johnson says.
The Dirties is currently available to stream or buy on iTunes.