The Dirties is one of the most insightful films on bullying in years. Effortlessly acted and directed by newcomer Matthew Johnson, it’s as much about the tragedy of school shootings as it is about the nature of the high school experience. Rather than obsess over the seriousness of the crime, it focuses on the series of events that allow a person to slip off the edge. Relatable, funny, touching, and disturbing, it tackles the reality of bullying, and the ramifications of brushing it off.

The Dirties

The story starts with a high school film project. Matt (Johnson, playing a high school version of himself) and his best friend Owen (Owen Williams) are putting together a film for class about a group of bullies called The Dirties who get their comeuppance from some renegade students with guns. Full of obscure film references, the message goes over the heads of their classmates, and the real life bullies.

As their lives become more difficult – bullying gets worse, and mockery over their film turns to physical violence – Matt comes up with a metaphysical cinematic concept for vengeance. What if someone made a film about actually killing the bullies? As Owen brushes off Matt’s concept as a means of venting his frustration, it gradually becomes clear that it may be more firmly rooted in reality.

The Dirties manages to get inside the heads of the shooters without judgment or agenda. While it translates as a how-to guide for school shootings, it’s not about finding an external impetus for Matt’s rage. He didn’t listen to Marilyn Manson, and, despite his frequent quoting of The Usual Suspects and obsession with film, it wasn’t movie violence that made him homicidal. The cause is both bullying and indifference. It forces the people looking for concrete causes – gun control, mental health issues, the wrong kind of music, violence in the media, blood in video games – to see the real issues: kids are mean when they’re not taught to play nice, teachers can’t do anything to prevent that, and indifference makes the pain too hard to handle.

The representation of bullying is frighteningly real. Capturing the shame, embarrassment, and hurt of being put down, stepped on, and emotionally slaughtered in public on a daily basis is no easy feat. The choice to bully someone is generally arbitrary, other than picking out the weak from the herd. Johnson portrays that reality with a kind of voyeuristic clarity. The film feels like high school. It’s a world we all know, and Johnson’s articulated that more clearly than anyone has before.

The Dirties

The decision to avoid digital bullying was a conscious one. Relegated to contemporary adolescence, it does nothing to suggest a new motivation for such harassment or lashing out against it. It’s simply a megaphone, amplifying the abuse. The significance here is the how of it all – how do these normal kids get to this breaking point? By avoiding digital bullying, Johnson manages to keep the film relatable to all generations. It broaches the subject that has now become hot button, without catering to the hype that jeopardizes the significance of the issue.

The visual style of the film is effortlessly complex. Difficult to pin down, it balances on the edge of found footage, and documentary film, while breaking down the fourth wall, and attempting a meta approach to narrative structure. Its ambiguity is an integral part of the plot, so much so that I’m reluctant to discuss it. It sneaks up on you by mid-film, and doesn’t let go.

Johnson’s created a remarkable film that humanizes the kids who snap. The characters are real, and their reactions are, shockingly, the stuff of everyday fantasy. Most kids who deal with bullying on a daily basis create their own The Dirties in their heads, not unlike what Matt and Owen did for class. Seldom, however, does anyone act on that fantasy. It’s rooted in anger and frustration, and doesn’t come to fruition because the boundaries of reality and propriety are firmly at play.

Johnson has created a world where those boundaries no longer exist, in a mind that’s been pushed too far and hurt too much. You question his sanity, and wonder if anything could have been done differently. You retrace his steps, and see how he came to make the decisions he makes. But, most importantly, Johnson gets you thinking about it. He reminds us of our torment in high school, and the thoughts that ran through our heads. In so many ways this is a mirror held up to the face of anyone who was ever bullied in school.