‘Under the Influence’: Film Review | SXSW 2022

One YouTuber profiles another in Casey Neistat’s doc on David Dobrik.

A film about a scandal-tainted celebrity that refuses to lose its obvious affection for that subject, Casey Neistat’s Under the Influence tries to maintain a documentary-like objectivity about YouTube phenom David Dobrik. Viewers who’ve never seen a Dobrik video and have only cursory (if any) knowledge of the allegations that briefly interrupted his career will come away feeling they understand the buoyant, boyish 25 year-old’s appeal — but they may be frustrated by the film’s less-than-probing look at behavior that should have caused him much more trouble than he endured. Along the way, the doc offers scraps of insight into how a social-media career differs from traditional pop-culture stardom. But they’re only scraps, and largely only applicable to this frustrating case.

For oldsters: Dobrik is a smiley, tousled-handsome kid whose job, as he puts it, is to “convince people I’m having fun.” In rapid-fire videos (first on Vine, then YouTube), he and buddies dubbed the Vlog Squad pull Jackass-like stunts, act like fratboys (and fratboy-enabling girls) and enjoy the perks of tremendous internet fame: Social media may pretend to be grassroots and equal-opportunity, but a channel like Dobrik’s is a heavily corporate affair, where sports cars, elaborate gags and giveaways are funded by the consumer brands who want a share of his audience’s attention.

Under the Influence

The Bottom Line

Access and good timing don’t guarantee much depth.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)

Director: Casey Neistat

Screenwriter: Mark Monroe

1 hour 43 minutes

Though Neistat offers occasional title cards referencing chronology, back-and-forth editing makes it hard to keep track of where interviews fit in a rapidly evolving career and in relation to revelations of buried secrets. (It would be a trivial effort to add datelines to the screen where appropriate.)

Neistat, who himself made his name with an avalanche of YouTube content, unwittingly shot the first interview for this project weeks after what would later emerge as the doc’s central drama: a filmed party in which then-Vlog Squad member Dom Zeglaitis allegedly got an underage woman blackout-drunk and had sex with her in Dobrik’s apartment, all while Dobrik and others celebrated the debauchery from another room.

Neistat conducted many of his interviews before he learned about this, but he witnessed first-hand plenty of behavior that demonstrates Dobrik’s sometimes tasteless, frequently dishonest, perhaps criminally negligent shtick. In search of outrageous moments to entertain his audience, he stages moments he’ll pretend are spontaneous; he cajoles women into stripping and men into humiliating themselves; and pushes his best friends into stunts that are clear invitations to mortal injury. At some point, an interviewee points out the obvious: As lame as a TV network’s Standards and Practices department may be, layers of naysayers can keep people from getting killed while trying to amuse the “friend” who pays their rent.

An older moviegoer watching this extremely white group of bros may ask himself: Isn’t this generation supposed to be hyper-conscious of race- and class-based privilege? Isn’t this behavior the very definition of what they rightly object to? How do you get millions of Gen-Z viewers to subscribe to the antics of a newly-minted One Percenter who cares so little about the dignity and well-being of those closest to him?

The film doesn’t think to ask some of these questions, and half-answers others. Dobrik’s looks and his friendly enthusiasm are a big part of it: He can appear to be almost innocent, no matter what’s happening around him. Even when he shoots a flamethrower directly in Neistat’s direction, the latter laughs off the danger and proceeds with his interview. Neistat proves not-quite-competent as a journalist when discussing another Dobrik scandal: From what’s in the film, you wouldn’t know for sure that Dobrik not only plotted the construction-equipment stunt that nearly killed his best friend, but was actually at the controls when it happened.

The film spends significant time on the impact of the scandal once the assault story breaks. But it seems more interested in the possible fallout — will Dobrik lose his multi-million-dollar mansion? do he and his buddies know how lucky they’ve been? — than on pressing its subject on the real questions. Even after issuing what sounded like a sincere, thorough apology for facilitating and profiting from the alleged rape, Dobrik tells Neistat that he didn’t think the scandal-starting news article was fair to him. If the filmmaker pushed back on this seemingly absurd claim, those objections don’t make it onto the screen.

Instead, we move on to the inevitable comeback, which proves again how toothless many attempts to cancel an irresponsible-or-worse star really are. The Discovery channel is currently promoting Dobrik as host of a travel show; YouTube welcomed his return to vlogging after a three-month pause, and as of this writing his main page boasts 18.3 million subscribers.

As former New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz puts it here, since most of the establishment doesn’t take social-media celebrity seriously, accountability can only come from fans. A sizable number of fans seems to have concluded that Dobrik has done nothing wrong, or at least nothing they won’t forgive.

Full credits

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Production company: Killer Films
Director- Director of photography: Casey Neistat
Screenwriter: Mark Monroe
Producers: Casey Neistat, Christing Vachon, Mason Plotts
Executive Producer: Mark Monroe
Editors: James Leche, Scott D. Hanson
Composer: Matthew Simpson
Sales: Kevin Iwashina

1 hour 43 minutes