Movie Review: Odd Phenomena convince LA oddballs there’s “Something in the Dirt”

You’ve got to be on their wavelength to “get” the latest strange, dry and deadpan sci-fi venture of “Synchronic” and “The Endless” creators Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.

“Something in the Dirt” is about two oddly-mismatched, reasonably compatible Angelinos who stumble into some bizarre phenomena that they set out to study, film and stream-of-consciousness “explain” in a DIY documentary about what’s going on.

For me, it was a droll reminder that I’m not so much on their wavelength as wavelength-adjacent. Their movies have a questioning and curious high-mindedness and intention that isn’t exactly something that one warms up to, or anything that provokes empathetic, fearful, awed or amused reactions.

You don’t leave one of their films saying “I laughed, I cried.” Well, I don’t, anyway.

“Dirt” begins when an itinerant LA bartender Levi (Benson) moves into a dumpy apartment on a flightpath to LAX, a place at the base of a (Laurel) canyon-side that seems consumed with ugly brushfires in the background of most every exterior shot we see of it.

John (Moorhead) is a long-time tenant, a former math teacher and church photographer who followed his husband to LA, and now makes ends meet by gathering and charging city scooters.

The first “joke” here might be the huge, unexplained blood stain on the religious gay man’s shirt when snorkeling buff Levi meets him.

Levi bums a smoke, provides a sort of cut-quartz ash tray for their shared enjoyment. And something — or some entity — makes the damned thing levitate in Levi’s overheated apartment.

Their jaws drop — a bit. The more articulate John notes that “We just saw something profound, and we have to show it to the world,” something “that’s like book deals and like movies and like TV shows and religious views and…”

Levi? They’ve just seen what happens when you “take too many edibles (while) watching ‘Unsolved Mysteries.'”

I mean, they’re both amazed and nonplussed. And yes, the “edibles” analogy is funny.

They and we take note of the formulae, equations, refraction diagrams and the like that cover the walls in Levi’s apartment, which had been vacant for a decade. There’s something “off” about his closet door.

And again, that ashtray-looking rock levitated and as the light passed through it, patterns emerged on the walls that has John musing over “ghosts” and “gateways” and light, and Levi wondering if they’re having some “Dan Brown” (“Da Vinci Code”) response to what’s going on.

“If you’re a ghost, DO something…different. Do something DIFFERENT.”

John talks Levi into making a documentary about this phenomenon, which multiplies into phenomena as he muses about the “cosmic puzzle” and the “music of the spheres” that seem connected with what they’re seeing (“Ode to Joy,” pop culture shorthand for “deep”).

Snippets of home movies of childhood (a NASA visit) and hints of the secrets each man is keeping from the other are blended into esoteric discussions of the light spectrum, time travel, “Jerusalem Syndrome,” TED talks, cats as a possible source in a spike in schizophrenia (“You can look it up!”), “The X-Files” and the characters “Dana Fox or Mulder Scully,” and “Something in the Dirt” half-morphs into a mocumentary.

A chemist, a geologist and assorted film editors weigh in about whatever is going on in this corner of Laurel Canyon for the “film.”

“How much you think Netflix pays for something like this?”

Benson and Moorhead posit two incompatible but somehow sync-able ways of looking at the world in showing us two out-of-their-depths stumbling into something extraordinary and then struggling to find ways to “show it to the world” and cash in on it, and maybe understand it as they do.

Levi, like us, may wonder if it’s “possible this is extremely dangerous and we just overlooked that part?” But there’s a heedlessness borne of John’s Internet and TED talk hubris, the idea that if you’ve trawled the web enough, you’re qualified to look for answers and reach conclusions, even if you’re plainly not, like say almost everybody making movies about UFOs, ghosts and “unexplained phenomena.”

“What’s crazier, believing every single coincidence you see, or just ignoring them?”

The presence of peripheral characters doesn’t alter this film’s two-hander nature, and fortunately for the leads, one is a perfectly convincing “surfer, dude” and the other could pass for a lapsed gay Mormon missionary who swears and smokes.

The jokes are desert Southwest dry — Levi complaining about how hard it is to get a bartender job in LA, John quoting a fear-of-flying friend that “You can only fall so fast” and begging Levi to watch him for signs of a “psychotic break.”

What Benson and Moorhead have conjured up here is their oddest, most esoteric dramedy yet, a tale quirky and weird, more serious than silly and certainly worth a look just to pick through the torrent of references herein. You’ve just got to be on their wavelength to get anything more than passing pleasure out of it.

Rating: R for language and a brief violent image.

Cast: Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson

Credits: Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, scripted by Justin Benson. An XYZ release.

Running time: 1:55

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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