Maddy Matthews (Jacob Lee Hedman) is on his way to the small town of Atwater Commons to participate in a two-month seminar on criminology, even though he's not a law enforcement officer or lawyer like the other students in the seminar. Maddy's purpose in coming to this seminar, apparently, is to come to grips with his mother's death in a car accident. If you find yourself wondering why the protagonist would go to a seminar on serial killers to enlighten himself on the accidental death of his mother, then you have put your finger on the first of many indications that Dirt Boy is a very strange movie. But is Dirt Boy deliberately strange, or accidentally so?
When he's not in class learning about the psychology of murderers, Maddy listens to a book-on-tape version of the best-selling novel Dirt Boy, a tale of serial murder by author Atwater Bridges, who happens to be the "local celebrity" of Atwater Commons. Maddy's growing obsession with the novel leads him to imitate what he's learning in class by "investigating" the fictional murders of Dirt Boy, which all take place in or around the town. The outward shape of Dirt Boy, then, is a thriller, but as a thriller, it's oddly unsatisfactory.
Dirt Boy is extremely self-referential, all the way to the DVD packaging that contains a positive review from the "Atwater Commons Book Review"; as a general rule I enjoy self-referential films, but in this case I never figured out to my satisfaction exactly why Dirt Boy was self-referential, as the recursiveness of the story seems to have little or no impact on the basic plot. Essentially, Dirt Boy never really establishes what kind of story it's trying to tell. While on the one hand the film is too surrealistic and self-referential in some respects to be readily interpreted as just a mystery, on the other hand its surrealistic elements don't fit together to form any alternate view of what the story is "really" about. I expected some sort of twist to bring all the unconnected, random pieces of the puzzle together, but the pieces remain scattered: what you see is, apparently, what you get.
The other problem is that the basic plot of Dirt Boy is, in a nutshell, rather incoherent. From the beginning, certain apparently important facts are presented in confusing or even contradictory ways, and the plot development includes some twists that hold water about as well as a leaky sieve. Far from ending with a bang, the film fizzles out in the concluding moments of the film in a wrap-up that lacks any meaningful resolution of the major story elements. Dirt Boy has definite elements of interest, but it never settles on what it's trying to be and as a result leaves the viewer in the same state of uncertainty.
Dirt Boy is a fairly typical release from Vanguard, in that the video quality is below par, though still basically watchable. The film is presented in what appears to be its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, but it is not anamorphically enhanced. The image is consistently blurry, and suffers from less than stellar colors. Both skin tones and other parts of the picture are both slightly inaccurate and rather washed-out, resulting in a picture that's not particularly appealing to the eye.
The sound for Dirt Boy is heavily focused in the center channel, and though it's Dolby 2.0, it almost sounds like a mono track. The sound is flat and rather lifeless, not really adding anything to the experience.
The major special feature of interest, for those who enjoyed the film, is an audio commentary from director/writer Gerald J. Frasco, actor Jacob Lee Hedman, and the film's producer. The remainder of the extras is made up of minor pieces: a ten-minute behind-the-scenes look at the film's premiere at the Seattle Film Festival, a trailer for the film, cast and crew biographies, a behind-the-scenes slide show, web site information, and four chapters from the book on tape (the same one that the main character listens to in the film). The "deleted scenes" section is a bit of a misnomer as it implies more than one actual deleted scene: there's one scene whose video portion was not used, though the audio portion was used as part of a radio broadcast, and one brief blooper.
Dirt Boy does strike out into some interesting territory, though it appears either to lose its map, or to never have had one in the first place. I wouldn't recommend a blind purchase of this film, but if you're in the mood for a strange and slightly open-ended viewing experience, Dirt Boy is worth a rental.