Locarno Film Fest: 'The Spectacular Now' Meets 'Elephant' in 'The Dirties'


“The Dirties” is about a pair of high school boys, Matt and Owen, who love making and talking about movies. Unfortunately, they are the victims of systematic and incessant bullying by a gang of jocks in their school called “The Dirties”. They concoct a plan to make a movie about killing the bullies in their school, but one of them soon wants to take things a bit further than that and put their plan into action.

Eventually winning the biggest prize at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, the project first began to take shape in 2010, when Josh Boles was developing an idea about high school bullying. He approached his friend Matt Johnson with the idea, who instantly picked it up. The team, including producer Matthew Miller, knew instantly that Matt could play one of the two leads himself: a manic and excitable teenager. However, they needed to find someone who could play the other lead, the straight man. They auditioned over 100 people until they chanced upon Owen Williams, a high school teacher with no acting experience whatsoever.

This backstory is important because it is the key to understanding the biggest masterstroke behind “The Dirties”: its casting. I don’t love the film; at times it struggles to balance its wildly divergent tones, and while it doesn’t pull its punches while depicting bullying, it can’t pull off its punches when it comes to the tackling of bullying. However, it’s impossible to overlook how much the casting of Owen Williams as the straight man helps the film, and harsh not to give it the credit due.

High school buddy comedies live and die on the basis of the chemistry between their leads, and how relatable their characters are. “Superbad”, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, and “The Myth of the American Sleepover” — they work because we can connect to at least one of the leads, and enjoy the interplay between them. In the same vein, “The Dirties” is enjoyable because Matt and Owen are believable best friends. However, it gains emotional weight only because Owen is a person right out of our lives (possibly even us).

In the film, he is the more repressed and unfortunate victim of bullying. Unlike Matt, who is a loner and with few larger plans regarding the school’s social hierarchy, Owen wants to climb up the ladder and even has his eyes set on Chrissy H, one of the most beautiful – and popular – girls in school. (*) Consequently, whenever The Dirties attacks him, it hurts more because (a) we see ourselves in him, and (b) we can gauge the negative repercussions of this incident.

(*) The “H.” is, apparently, short for “hot.” At least that’s what the director told me.

Moreover, an excuse could be made (**) that Matt invites some of the bullying with his brash demeanor. He doesn’t even lie down after the event and tries to get back at the aggressor. Owen, on the other hand, is often the victim solely because of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is programmed to just take what’s coming and accept it as part of his fate. This makes him even more helpless and easy to root for.

(**) An excuse, not a justification. An excuse merely explains the action; a justification would justify it.

I cannot testify whether all of this characterization was intentional, but it certainly pervaded into – and defined – my viewing of the film. There’s one scene in the film wherein Owen tries to go up to Chrissy and talk to her while they are in the cafeteria. But, because of sheer bad luck he runs afoul of one of The Dirties, and is publicly humiliated. It’s one of the more affecting scenes in the movie, and is a microcosm of the film’s universe of characters and their predicaments.

One aspect the film gains from is that all of us would relate to Owen, even the Matts of the world. After all, no one would remember being boisterous and inviting a beatdown. Everyone would like to connect with the boy who did nothing wrong and was only at the receiving end of cruel circumstances. Thus, the film is at its strongest when we are following Owen and his difficult life.

However, towards the end of the film, the focus shifts to Matt, who can no longer internalize the pain he endures at the hands of The Dirties. What follows is a character choice – and a series of scenes – that are provocative and (possibly) disturbing, but not as affecting as the earlier sections of the film. It’s because Matt was never “us”; he was a projection, or the best friend to the guy who was “us”. The last shot of the film depicts an intriguing situation, but it’s not haunting because of the weakness of the preceding 10 minutes.

“The Dirties” rides a wave of audience sympathy for much of its 85min runtime. It would just be a much better film if it realized that it was a story not of two leads, but of one lead and his best friend.