What initially starts as a light-hearted look at YouTube star David Dobrik and his “Vlog Squad” evolves into a portrait that doesn’t quite know what to make of him and his enablers. The question of enablers is a fascinating one: an often symbiotic, sometimes parasitic relationship between co-hosts, fans, content creators, and businesses writing big checks. In happier times, Dobrik was known for his raw personal video blogs that merged into something like Jackass, involving dangerous and somewhat complex stunts without the supervision of lawyers as fellow YouTuber, actor Josh Peck, points out. With his “basic” (also Josh Peck’s words) personality, Dobrik acquired a rabid fanbase of pre-teens, teens, and college students. They like him—even more when he has the capability to instantly grant one young woman’s wish with $15,000, courtesy a dating app that paints itself as the feminist alternative to a well-known hookup service.

Directed by fellow YouTube star Casey Neistat, an elder millennial, it appears Under the Influence started as something much different, uncovering a culture of toxic masculinity amongst a certain set of recently rich young kids with no parental oversight. The one central adult figure in his life, Jason Nash, is seemingly along for the ride as a 43-year-old family man saved from the brink of bankruptcy by Dobrik’s ideas on how to reinvent his career. The other moral compass is Hannah, Dobrik’s fixer. Hired directly out of college, she’s tasked with organizing the stunts and travel while also participating in the Vlog Squad activities. 

Influence doesn’t spend much time focusing on other members of the Vlog Squad other than two that become central to the downfall of Dobrik, including friends Jeff Wittek and Durte Dom (Dominykas Zeglaitis), the latter described as the resident “Glenn Quagmire.” At age 25, Dobrik is said to pull a million dollars a month in brand deals that range from arrangements with the kinds of companies you often hear advertising on podcasts to his own TV show on Discovery Plus. When Netflix doesn’t bite on an idea, he views it as a bump in the road. With four billion-plus views and 11 million YouTube followers, what could go wrong?

Under the Influence provides an insightful, messy introduction for those who weren’t following the story closely. It’s frustrating perhaps by design, framed with insight from Kat Tenbarge, an Insider reporter who’s been covering social-media influencers—first with a relatively boring puff piece, later an expose mirroring the structure of this film. As Donald Trump said, “When you’re wealthy they let you do what you want.” And while Dobrik himself isn’t directly a predator, he does know what gets likes, clicks, and people to “smash” that subscribe button. That includes a video in shockingly poor taste as Durte (“dirty”) Dom has his first threesome with a group of intoxicated college girls. Surely some adult supervision is required.

Influence captures Dobrik within an echo chamber in which his enablers don’t care, from the companies throwing money in his face for impressions (which also includes all manner of free products, including sports cars) to fans that initially see nothing wrong in the highly toxic, music video-like culture of the Vlog Squad. The drama comes to a head when one member goes MIA for a time following a dangerous stunt that leaves lasting damage.

Neistat, a consultant insider who sold his multimedia company to CNN, has seemingly unlimited access to Dobrik and his team, documenting the poor responses. His project is not necessarily a sympathetic portrait, though he finds empathy with fans of Dobrik and the Vlog Squad—e.g. Lexi Violet, who even goes as far as to tattoo a quote from Dobrik on herself.

As a focused look at Dobrik and team, Influence ultimately drags a bit as it repeats details of Durte Dom’s evening and the deceptive editing used to make the event seem more like American Pie, minus heart. For Dobrik it seems a lesson wasn’t learned, which is perhaps what’s most frustrating: this story is ongoing, its issues complex. As the framing is less intricate than it ought to be we’re left in a bit of an uncanny valley: an OG YouTuber like Casey Neistat is perhaps one of the only people that could make the film in this way, with this level of access, but he lacks some critical distance needed for deeper insight.

Under the Influence premiered at SXSW 2022.

Grade: C+

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