Early Safdie producer and longtime Schulman/Joost collaborator Casey Neistat is more widely famous for his YouTube-based vlogs (subscribed to by 12.4 million individuals) and media startup ventures, which focus on a rather broad, generalized tech/entertainment/lifestyle brand intersection, and are seemingly dictated by whatever is most immediately in the content creator’s purview at any given moment. Yet despite his significant successes in the YouTube arena, Neistat finds himself drawn back into the world of old media (with the backing of Christine Vachon’s Killer Films), assuming directing responsibilities on a feature-length documentary for the first time.
Though, of course, Neistat’s latest project, Under the Influence, is an extension of the work he’s been doing over the last several years on YouTube, just repackaged to better fit traditional cinematic formal constraints. A fatefully timed production, Under the Influence began life innocently enough, with Neistat interested in documenting David Dobrik and his Vlog Squad, who, at the start of filming in 2019, were at the height of their powers, riding a massive viewership wave that was carrying them over into the mainstream. Except, fueled by an audience of at least 18 million subscribers who have viewed his videos over 7 billion times, Dobrik was already totally mainstream, just not wholly accepted by traditional media institutions or recognized by the demographics who still subscribe to them exclusively. This is apparent from the moment Neistat turns his camera on the 25-year-old Dobrik and his cronies, who at this point had been enjoying an unhindered cultural ascent for some four years, and the outrageous decadent lifestyle that comes with it. Under the Influence’s original thesis seems to have been intended to be more pragmatic — Neistat is, after all, a vlogger himself and big time YouTube celebrant — but scandal struck before production could wrap, forcing Neistat to rework narrative and tone.
Ultimately taking the form of Internet-age cautionary tale, Neistat and nonfiction screenwriter Mark Monroe (Icarus, The Cove) locate an elegant and tasteful narrative structure that allows for a reconsideration of the subject. Painted as this inevitable, new media sociopath (frequent collaborator Josh Peck compares him to Godard), Dobrik assembled a debased media empire that reconsidered the grammar and tropes of sitcoms and prank shows using a vlog format, somewhere in between reality TV and podcast. Adopting an Entourage-type dynamic wedded to a (totally unsupervised) Jackass bent, the Vlog Squad offered ripe parasocial fantasy that clearly inspired fans and sucked legitimate celebrities into its orbit, yet the humor largely derived from performances of toxic male camaraderie that found the members around Dobrik basically demeaning themselves on his behalf for money (worst off being Jason Nash, a 40-something comedian the star saved from financial ruin and who now receives a monthly salary to bear the brunt of cruelest pranks). Across Under the Influence’s 100-minute runtime, Neistat methodically traces the days before scandal struck Dobrik and co., profiling the team at their apex, and then as they scramble to save the brand in the face of compounding public fuck-ups and criminal allegations (first a sexual assault allegation against a founding Vlog Squad member, then an extreme injury visited upon another, both direct results of the YouTuber’s negligence and encouragements). Attempts to break through the subject’s blank charms largely don’t stick, and Neistat, assuming a sort of Errol Morris type role, isn’t inclined to get too aggressive (accusations of racism and ableism by former Squad members go untouched), but Under the Influence is nevertheless an effectively unsettling work, with Dobrik’s smug, cipher-like qualities speaking for themselves in most cases. The result is a surprisingly focused, refined work from Neistat, and essential viewing for those not submerged in YouTube culture.
Published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3.