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Sunday, January 23, 2022

[Sundance Review] Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s ‘Something in the Dirt’ Unravels Heady Sci-Fi Tale of Friendship and Phenomena

DIY filmmaking mavericks Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead continue their unique nesting doll cinematic universe with their latest. Something in the Dirt harkens back to their roots, offering up another introspective, intimate sci-fi tale centered around an unlikely comedic duo.  

Levi (Benson) snagged a no-lease apartment in Hollywood Hills, sight unseen, as he prepares to leave Los Angeles for good. He quickly establishes a rapport with new neighbor John (Moorhead), trading life stories and made-up ones about the apartment’s history. They grow even closer when they witness a bizarre supernatural event in Levi’s apartment, sending them on a quest to capture proof for fame and fortune.

Something in the Dirt is a small-scale effort, shot during the pandemic, and places quiet emphasis on its characters over a conventional story. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s a mumblecore feature that’s almost entirely reliant on dialogue, set mainly within the confines of the apartment building. Levi and John’s arcs play out in conversations with each other, delivering everything about their interior lives and potential theories about the phenomena within Levi’s apartment. Their experimentations spin out a tangled web of suppositions, conspiracies, and weighty reflections on responsibility.

Much in the same way that The Endless ingeniously incorporated Resolution, Benson and Moorhead’s latest also finds a rather clever way to expand their universe here. It comes late and casual, a significant story-sized Easter egg that’ll leave you wanting to immediately revisit their catalog to fit this new piece into the larger puzzle fully.

The further into Levi and John’s journey, the more dizzying the theories and dynamics between the pair come, building toward a finale that refuses to offer up an easy explanation. It’s the type of feature that demands you listen carefully and soak in every conversation to parse out the clues.

As usual, Something in the Dirt showcases Benson and Moorhead’s filmmaking style. They meticulously and impressively craft a feature by wearing multiple hats and utilizing the scant few raw materials at their disposal. In addition to co-directing, producing, and editing, Benson wrote the screenplay, and Moorhead handled the cinematography. Both demonstrate their chemistry on-screen as the almost unrecognizable, oddball leads. Levi and John are so very different in look and personality from the brothers Benson and Moorhead played in The Endless that it’s almost jarring- is there anything they can’t do?

What begins as comedically charming slowly unravels into something darker and far more confounding. Benson and Moorhead riff off paranormal investigative-type stories or shows, framing it from the perspective of amateurs that just happened to stumble upon a discovery in their living room. The mumblecore approach to the supernatural mysteries means it’s a little unwieldy in the back half, especially as it ponders questions on morality. Still, the pair’s extensive history, chemistry, and friendship keep it grounded and poignant. Something in the Dirt impressively unfurls an ambitious feature from a simple idea, leaving you with a lot to chew on long after the credits roll.


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