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Something in the Dirt review – zonked-out ode to the joys of filmmaking

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's latest follows two LA slackers as they set out to chronicle the strange-goings in their building

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have carved out one of the more interesting filmographies of 21st century American cinema: a collection of weird and offbeat movies that flit between sci-fi, horror, fantasy, surrealism, and a specific type of zonked-out, LA strangeness. Their work may be rooted in post-modernism and meta-textuality, but the duo also have a fine knack for striking just the perfect balance of sincerity and ironic self-awareness, already apparent in their 2012 debut feature Resolution.

So it goes with their latest effort, Something in the Dirt. A noticeably more stripped-back project than their previous work – this was a pandemic-era production – we spend the majority of our time with bartender Levi (Benson) and wedding photographer John (Moorhead), two neighbours who begin documenting the strange poltergeist-esque goings-on at their apartment block, with much of the shooting done in Benson’s own apartment. The duo, both anxious about the approach of middle-age with nothing much to show for it, hypothesise that their documentary project will catapult them to fame, overinvesting meaning from random coincidences to make sense of their film.

In-between, they speculate about the nature of the supernatural events to each other and on camera with theories derived from half-remembered podcasts, wonky TED talks, and poorly researched Reddit threads. These conversations would be insufferable in many hands, but Benson and Moorhead have an easygoing onscreen chemistry. Both are also constantly hiding details about their past from each other: Levi as to the extent of his criminal history; John, the nature of his relationship to an apocalyptic evangelical sect, giving their relationship an engaging, ever-shifting power dynamic.

Because we’re never sure exactly if these people are who they say they are, the film’s metatextual arc has an added depth. We constantly return to a series of mockumentary-style talking head inserts, from people involved in their film project in the months afterwards, and who are baffled as to what they were working on. At one point, a nugget of information is dropped that utterly shifts the dynamic of what we’ve just seen: what appears to be a gently spooky sci-fi buddy comedy immediately becomes something far more neurotic – as if they’re messing with the very text of the story in front of our eyes.

A repeated image of a Russian doll decoration confirms as much. Add that to the fact that the story is set in LA’s Laurel Canyon (once home to Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison and pretty much the entirety of the 1960s counterculture) and the overall feel of Something in the Dirt – like having a few too many tokes on a spliff and finding yourself stuck between major paranoia and blissful mellowness – suddenly starts to make a lot more sense.

This is a strange puzzle of a film, but not one that sets out to ask any burning questions about the meaning of life. Indeed, the real answer to the film’s stream of pseudo-scientific babble perhaps lies in the credits, where it's proclaimed the film is dedicated to “making movies with your friends.” Two guys, horsing around in their apartment with sci-fi, horror, or whatever takes their fancy: a good vibe, in other words.

Something in the Dirt is released in UK cinemas on 4 November.

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