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'The Dirties' Approaches School Shootings as Black Comedy

When it comes to discussions about violence in schools, Matt Johnson's debut feature may be an easier entry point for teens than other arthouse offerings.
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"The Dirties"
Phase 4 Films "The Dirties"

"We're just here for the bad guys" exclaims the shirt worn by Matt, a bullied high school student looking to get revenge on a group of cruel students he names "the dirties." Matt Johnson's first feature film, "The Dirties," made its international premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland and is due to hit for U.S. distribution by Phase 4. The film is about a school shooting, but don't expect a somber tone reminiscent of Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" (2003). Instead, expect to laugh. Before you start writing letters of condemnation to Criticwire calling for my head, let me explain: this film does not make light of school shootings, in fact it does quite the opposite. 

Shot as a first-person narrative from Matt's perspective, the film demands audience sympathy for the shooter. As Matt, Owen and a referenced third friend take us through the daily routine at their high school, we can see a slow erosion of wits take its toll on Matt. The bullying begins to wear at his sanity and shows that from a tortured teen's perspective a shooting is not a snap decision but a final solution to a reoccurring problem. 

There is a clear buildup throughout the film that suggests the end will not be a laughing matter, yet this is splotched between moments of pure hilarity. Before the bullying reaches a precipice for Matt, he and Owen thrill the audience with homages to "Pulp Fiction" and "The Dark Knight Rises." The boys also endear the audience to them as they do normal teenage boy things, like help each other get girls. Rather than paint a portrait of two seriously disturbed psychopaths, the film shows the audience that the shooting is the result of several malicious interactions between otherwise likable people and their bullies. 

It is important for high school kids, especially, to know that people can be pushed to this point. If not out of morality, they can at least treat people with dignity for their own safety. 

Admired by Kevin Smith as "the most important film you will see all year," "The Dirties" is able to strike a rare balance between irreverent comedy and social commentary. For this reason, the film is important to creating a dialog among more groups of people. 

Perhaps my fifteen year old brother would just not sit through a somber stylistic film like "Elephant," yet the film directly relates to his age group. I think it very likely that he will see "The Dirties" and that experience will create an open dialog for him and his friends on the issue of high school bullying. Of cours, some caution should be exercised that while this movie be available for teens it is also received by parents and teachers in such a way that encourages helpful dialog about how to avoid high school tragedies caused by bullying. 

This film is important to un-muting the dialog between teens on an issue that needs to include them in the conversation.

Click here for more on Katelyn Trott and this year's Critics Academy.

This article is related to: Locarno International Film Festival, Critics Academy


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