Dirty: Bruce Sweeney Comedy

Canadian comedy-drama

Sundance Film Festival–With his second film, Dirty, a darkly comic psychological exploration of half a dozen urban dwellers in East Vancouver, gifted Canadian Bruce Sweeney emerges as a filmmaker to watch. A follow-up to Sweeney’s feature debut, Live Bait, which won Best Canadian Film at the 1995 Toronto Film Festival, the film boasts terrific ensemble acting, taking full advantage of its lengthy rehearsals and improvisational methods. Nonetheless, prevalent caustic tone and the emotional intensity with which Sweeney dissects his characters’problems, including sexual masochism, neurosis, and anomie, will restrict considerably pic’s theatrical prospects, though an entrepreneurial distributor should exhibit Dirty in major urban markets with built-in upsacle and sophistaicated viewers.

Sweeney appears to work in the serio-comic and psychologistic mode of John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh. A 1991 master class with the famed Brit director has reportedly influenced his own aesthetic sensibility. Dirty lacks the depth and veracity of Leigh’s best films (Life Is Sweet, Secrets & Lies), but, like them, it digs deep inside its characters and discloses the inner working of their psyches in a revelatory, serio-comic style.

Central figure (brilliantly played by Babz Chula) is Angie, a middle-aged though still attractive drug dealer, who fulfills the hidden masochistic fantasies of David (Tom Scholte), a young MBA student, who derives pleasure from being spanked. David shares residence with a new roomate, Tony (Benjamin Ratner), a worker in a log company, whose loneliness and desperate need to be acknowledged–and loved–brings out the worst in David’s personality.

A fourth character, Nancy (Nanvy Spivak), who’s on the verge of decalring bankruptcy and facing its emotional ramifications, lives in the basement of Angie’s apartment. She too, like Angie’s son, Ethan (Vincent Gale), and Angie’s old mother, Abbie (Abby J. Arnold), who’s visiting from Florida, is dangerously lonely and desperately eager for some meaningful human communication. Most of these bizarre interactions take place in Angie’s ragged house, which becomes the physical and emotional center where all the characters are forced to recognize–and manifest–their idiosyncratic problems.

As scripter and helmer, Sweeney’s orientation is unabashedly Freudian–each of the six characters is engaged in what could be described from a mainstream perspective as “deviant sexuality.” This includes Nancy’s mother, who somehow embarrasses the younger protagonists by extolling the virtue of active sex at old age, or Nancy herself, who occasionally needs a rough, impersonal sex with David. Sweeney may carry these sexual fixations to an extreme, but, for the most part, he shrewdly endows them with a peculiar but effective combination of sarcastic wit, emotional power–and undeniable realism.

With the notable exception of a few unconvincing scenes, such as the one in which Angie reveals at dinner time that David likes to be strapped, Dirty benefits from the improvisational input of all the actors. Like Woody Allen and Cassavetes, Sweeney subscribes to the theory that dialogue, not plot, is the real action, staging the various confrontations in the story with an observant eye–and attentive camera–that records the most truthful, if often unpleasant, details. Sharply written dialogue cuts through the layers of false pretentiousness that marks most of our routine conversations, until it reaches a level, where each character is forced to face his or her innermost demons and anxieties.

Providing the heart and soul of the film, the ensemble is uniformly good, with standout work from Chula and Scholte, as the central couple, and Arnold, who’s Chula’s real-life mother. Tech credits are proficient, particularly David Pelletier’s crisply invigorating camera, which in almost every scene seems to dive right to the most crucial and painful detail.


A Dirty/Stephen Hegyes production, with the participation of Canada TV and Cable Production Fund and Telefilm Canada. Produced by John Dippong, Linda Guns, and Bruce Sweeney. Executive producer, Stephen Hegyes. Directed, written by Bruce Sweeney. Camera (color), David Pelletier; editor, Ross Weber; music, Don MacDonald; production design, Tony Devenyi; set decoration, Troy Hansen; costume design, Laurel Colins; assistant director, Shirley-Anne Parsons. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema), Jan. 19, 1998. Running time: 94 min.


David…….Tom Scholte
Angie……..Babz Chula
Tony….Benjamin Ratner
Nancy…….Nancy Sivak
Ethan……Vincent Gale
Lila……Frida Betrani
Abbie….Abby J. Arnold