‘Something in the Dirt’ Review: COVID-Shot Mockumentary Plumbs Its Characters’ Existential Grief

XYZ Films

In retrospect, trapping a whole generation of filmmakers inside their houses with professional grade production equipment for months on end was destined to have an impact on their artistic output. It’s been a few years since the early height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we’re still uncovering all the strange, low-fidelity projects these artisans came up with.

“Something in the Dirt” is one of the more interesting, if less focused examples.

Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, written by Benson, photographed by Moorhead, and co-starring Benson and Moorhead — the two have since gone on to co-direct episodes of “Moon Knight” — “Something in the Dirt” is a sad, paranoid story of two Los Angeles wastrels who just happen to live next to each other. Levi Danube (Benson) is a shiftless asexual bartender with an extremely unfortunate arrest record, and John Daniels (Moorhead) is a shiftless divorcée who belongs to a bleak evangelical faith and lives off his ex-husband’s charity.

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Their lives intertwine when Levi discovers that his apartment — which had been left unrented for about a decade (a statistical improbability in overcrowded Los Angeles) — is full of inexplicable phenomena. His closet emits strange flashing lights and has confusing scientific mumbo-jumbo scrawled its walls. Weirder still is an odd crystalline ashtray he finds on the ground, which sometimes levitates, refracts mysterious patterns on the wall and maybe causes earthquakes. But then again, that could just be Los Angeles.

With nothing better to do with their lives, Levi and John start recording the psychic phenomena with camcorders and smart phones, with an eye towards turning their random discovery into a hit documentary. They naively assume that these kinds of videos get purchased for, on average, $10 million on Netflix. They also naively blunder into a research project about the history of their building, the enigmatic object and the bizarre patterns they discover in all the minutiae in their lives, even though they’re really bad at research and base most of their “eureka” moments on theories they half-remember from podcasts and only superficially looked up online.

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There are a few films wrapped up inside each other in “Something in the Dirt,” not the least of which is a depressing cautionary tale about people at their lowest ebb who search for meaning outside themselves instead of inward. Whenever Levi and John attempt to connect on an interpersonal level, they fall prey to paranoia and hurt feelings. Only their shared enthusiasm over this documentary project keeps them on decent terms. They desperately crave enlightenment but have no idea how to find it, and there’s a pop poignancy to the movie’s observations about that particular brand of emptiness.

“Something in the Dirty” is also a film about amateurs making a film, and it’s a bit sloppy about that. What appears to be a narrative feature that includes documentary footage shot by the protagonists reveals itself, rather quickly, to be a full-fledged mockumentary, with all the “real” scenes allegedly recreated after the fact by novice directors who don’t understand the importance of scruples. Infrequent asides by outside interview subjects — like a small series of eye-rolling freelance editors who got roped into the project because they simply needed a gig — provide useful context into the film as a meta-commentary, but their contributions are too sparse to properly reframe the film as an inside joke for filmmakers. Or at least, as a funny one.

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What “Something in the Dirt” boasts more than anything else isn’t a clever storyline, since it’s too rambling for that, or a clever treatise on anything larger than two dudes stuck in their own little world. What it has in abundance is genuine sadness. Benson and Moorhead direct and shoot their film smartly, but their performances are what ground it and give it shape. It’s Benson’s moping alienation and Moorhead’s desperate need to believe in something — no matter how nonsensical, even if he knows he’s making it up himself — that resonate.

The sense of feeling existentially trapped, to be full of life and yet unable to truly live, is emerging as one of the defining characteristics of the Lockdown Wave. That and an inventive cinematic spirit, which allows ambitious stories to be told with extremely limited resources. “Something in the Dirt” is a fine example of both qualities, finding infinite wonders within a crappy apartment and infinite sadness in the hunt for logical answers. All science, no philosophy, and in the end there’s nothing but loneliness at the end of that road.

If Benson and Moorhead’s film was a bit less shambling and a bit more biting, it would generate more excitement, more investment, more thrills. But it wouldn’t be nearly as pathetic, and that’s what gives this endearing mixed bag its eccentric jolt of power.

“Something in the Dirt” opens Nov. 4 in US theaters via XYZ Films.