By Peg Aloi
In addition to being a clever paranormal thriller, Something in the Dirt is a brilliant commentary on our burgeoning world of content creation.
Something in the Dirt, directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Coming to VOD.
One of my favorite films in Sundance 2022, Something in the Dirt, is now available to a wider audience (on VOD November 22). It is the fifth feature of the filmmaking team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who wrote, directed, and star in this quirky but absorbing paranormal thriller. The cool thing about indie films that explore subject matter that usually requires lots of special effects (like horror) is that budgetary constraints require creativity and talent to keep things engaging. And this team has creativity and talent galore. Long time collaborators Benson and Moorhead also directed several episodes of Archive 81, the brilliant but short-lived Netflix series about a documentarian who discovers a strange cult inhabits an apartment building in Manhattan. There are similarities to Archive 81’s vibe and sensibility here: perfectly realistic characters are tossed into situations that suddenly turn strange and surreal.
Something in the Dirt begins as a quirky buddy comedy about two lonely guys in Los Angeles who happen to be neighbors. Levi (Justin Benson) has recently moved into a short-term rental apartment, and is planning to move away as soon as possible. He’s a bit of a drifter, charismatic but strange, like a displaced surfer dude or a wannabe actor who’s given up, oversharing one minute and keeping people at arm’slength the next. One night he runs into his neighbor John (Moorhead), who has recently split up with his boyfriend. As they smoke cigarettes on their shared balcony, Levi and John quickly discover they have shared interests in the paranormal, and weird shit in general. The conversation practically generates sparks of comradeship; it’s clear these two outcast guys have each made a friend. Soon after, Levi shows John some strange supernatural things occurring in his apartment, including a large chunk of crystal that seems to float in the air. They decide to start filming and recording, making what they hope will be a documentary film about their seemingly haunted building. But when John does a bit of searching online and finds some disturbing information about Levi, their collaboration stumbles just as it’s starting. Levi, who lives his life like an open book, tells John everything there is to know about him. Meanwhile, John may have some secrets of his own.
As the two explore the mysteries of their building and neighborhood, it’s clear that they’re also cautiously examining the trajectory of their sudden and odd friendship. Levi seems the more romantic figure of the two, captivated by sightings of coyotes, struggling to find hope after suffering from trauma, discovering strange coincidences in random occurrences. His obscure popular culture references flow like quicksilver. John, meanwhile, appears to take a more scientific approach, collecting books and charting patterns that may or may not add up to something significant. What could have been portrayed as two weird dudes in L. A. just killing time instead evolves into a rather moving account of self-transformation catalyzed by a random encounter. Is it the quest to solve a mystery that draws the friends closer, or their burgeoning friendship that feeds their desire to embark on a shared adventure? Their willing belief in uncanny and magical stuff becomes a potent metaphor for that most terrifying of human endeavors — building trust in a relationship.
But, beyond metaphor, Something in the Dirt is also a brilliant commentary on our burgeoning world of content creation. This film layers a documentary within a documentary, luring us into a puzzle box of found footage that may or may not be authentic. The convincingly sincere and realistic reactions of the performers make for an utterly absorbing experience. The documentary interviews, which go through multiple edits and editors, include input from crew members whose motives are either wholly neutral and impeccable or less than pure. This is a delightful satiric take on the notion that media of this type is often heavily edited and manipulated, that fervent claims of authenticity may be taken with a grain of salt. For the drive to create is usually bound up in the drive to share, and to garner attention. And, in many cases, it is about garnering profit. It should be no surprise that the passion and inspiration that drives creators is beset by factors that dull its mercurial sheen: practical matters of audience and distribution and monetization and livelihood.
It is a familiar trope of artistic collaboration. Usually one partner defaults to being practical and the other stays more idealistic. Because Levi and John share an interest in so many topics, there’s a compelling, if wistful, air of purity to their collaboration. But when it’s revealed that one of them may be indulging in some manipulative and dishonest tactics, the friendship — along with the project — stumbles. Plenty of questions and shards of truth remain. The haunting mystery at the heart of Something in the Dirt manages to be both heartbreaking and horrifying at the same time.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.