Intelligent, low-key suspenser wants to be a “Blair Witch Project,” but as that hit pic’s makers know all too well, crafting another one of those isn’t all that easy. Lack of star power, marketing hooks or stylistic innovation makes this a tough sell, even on vid or tube, but offbeat, literary nature could deliver mild cult status, as well as some bigger-budget offers to resourceful helmer-scripter Jay Frasco.
Pic’s setup is based on a made-up bestseller, also called “Dirt Boy,” so popular an entire Massachusetts town, Atwater Commons, has been named after the book’s author, Atwater Bridges (Arthur J. Walsh). New to the oddly off-putting place is young Matty (Jacob Lee Hedman), a stringy-haired ex-junky from New York City. A would-be student of forensic sciences, he signs up for a local workshop on crime-scene investigation, led by the mysterious Dr. Klugard (Luca Bercovici).
Spurred on by the doc’s sometimes cryptic comments and an audio version of “Dirt Boy,” he starts retracing steps elaborately detailed in the book’s depiction of local murders. And, wouldn’t you know it, he begins bumping into the decomposed bodies of supposedly fictional characters! News of this makes Matty persona non grata in the Podunk fishing village.
Tension builds with help from sound and music, but problems arise in the story shot on no budget in a perpetually gray-skied Cape Cod area. There’s an intriguing subplot about a taciturn young woman (Michelle Guthrie) who says she survived an attack by the seemingly avuncular author, but Frasco can’t decide whether or not to develop this into a full-fledged romance for Matty, so it merely sits in some narrative netherworld.
Similarly, the criminology seminar is in no way integrated with the rest of the tale — until a big finish, when the coppers suddenly show up on the underpopulated scene, a batch of deus ex machinas with badges.
Even more fundamentally, it’s hard to buy the pic’s premise, since not even Stephen King has a Kingville to call his own. And why would a book this famous have only one adherent scouring its pages for hidden clues? In a fit of postmodern irony, Frasco’s characters keep attacking quality of book’s writing (his own, of course), while the pulp fiction, as read by Glen Victor Boyle, is presented as breathtakingly lyrical. Despite the presence of lots of related jargon, psychology explored here — of both the morally destitute murderer and ambivalent amateur detective — is pretty flimsy stuff. It strains for the frighteningly mystical, but “Dirt Boy” turns out to be as prosaic as its title.