Casey Neistat’s David Dobrik documentary shows creator refuses to grow up
The essence of David Dobrik, the cheeky subject of Casey Neistat’s documentary Under the influence, first crystallizes on screen during a high-pressure pitch on Netflix. It’s 2020, and the 24-year-old sits in front of a laptop, his eyes shining with anticipation as he describes his dream gig: a serotonin supercut from a late-night variety show. “Look at you Extreme Makeover: Home Edition or one of those reaction shows?” he asks representatives of the streaming giant. final moment. I kinda wish there was a show that skipped all that.” He makes an urgent gesture, “I just wanna get to that last moment, I wanna be there constantly.“
Dobrik has made a career out of chasing those “last moments” on camera, uploading frantic antics, often heightened by alcohol and sex, to YouTube. His videos have earned him over 18 million subscribers, a show on Discovery+ and enough money to be crowned one of the highest paid YouTube creators of 2020. His success has also made stars from a recurring cast. of over 15 friends collectively referred to as the “Vlog Squad”. Most now have their own branded social media, merchandise, and endorsements due to their affiliation with Dobrik and their appearances in his videos.
Casey Neistat and David Dobrik in a still from a May 2017 YouTube video posted on Dobrik’s second channel.
Under the influence examines Dobrik’s explosive rise to fame and the inevitable toll in 2021 after two career-defining events: a march insider report alleging Dobrik was complicit in the 2018 sexual assault of a college student who appeared in his vlogs; and the revelation in April of a 2020 accident that left a member of his Vlog crew with a cracked skull, brain damage and double vision in one eye.
The documentary is directed by Neistat, a filmmaker who, from 2015 to 2016, perfected a style of daily vlogging that redefined the genre on YouTube. His vivid and vibrant portrayals of his world travels and New York City romp inspired Dobrik, who found success with his own brand of semi-scripted vlogs combining Donkey-type stunts, stand-up comedy and reality TV. “Casey [was] my favorite youtube vlogger [until] about two years ago and then I started and just took over,” Dobrik joked in a video with Neistat from 2017. “It would be funny if it wasn’t the truth,” Neistat shot back.
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Despite Neistat and Dobrik’s friendly relationship as contemporaries – or perhaps because of it – Under the influence is a balanced and compelling chronicle of how power distorts, incites and exploits the motivations of everyone in its orbit.
Much of Dobrik’s content relies on the Vlog Squad wanting to perform: as raw caricatures, amateur stuntmen, and support men. Safety and consent seem to come second to getting vaccinated, if considered. In the doc, Dobrik notes that a vlog he films is “not funny unless someone gets hurt.” His assistant Natalie Mariduena calls herself “Safety Sally” but is later shown pressuring Vlog Squad member Corinna Kopf to take off her shirt while filming a fake party scene in a private jet, even after Kopf expressed discomfort with the idea.
The Vlog Squad has made a lot of money by putting their lives on the line and sacrificing their dignity in front of Dobrik’s millions of viewers. Jason Nash, the oldest member of Squad at 48, was a divorcee who struggled to support his two children before befriending Dobrik, who he believes made him a millionaire.
Dobrik and Vlog Squad members including Nash and Wittek at the 9th Annual Streamy Awards in 2019.
Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Dick Clark Productions
“Are these people somehow pressured into doing this because of the platform it gives them and the money it gives them?” asks Kat Tenbarge, the Insider reporter who first broke the story about the alleged rape of a woman by Vlog Squad member Dominykas Zeglaitis. “It’s only when you think about how this power dynamic actually affects these people’s decision-making that you can begin to see it as something more exploitative.”
The documentary includes graphic footage of the result of this gray area of decision-making: a 2020 stunt gone wrong. Dobrik illegally operates an excavator on a shallow lake in Utah. Vlog Squad member Jeff Wittek, who first appeared in Dobrik’s videos in 2018, is attached to the crane by a thin rope, swinging in a circle, when Dobrik panics and shuts the machine down. Wittek crashes down on his metal arm and hangs upside down from the rope, his head underwater, floundering as he waits to be rescued.
“People are going to say you’re a fucking idiot for stepping on that rope and letting someone control your life like that,” says Wittek, whose face has been reconstructed and whose brain and eyesight are permanently damaged. . “I didn’t think of it like that. I thought, ‘Let’s do what we have to do to make this video great.'”
A screenshot from Jeff Wittek’s YouTube documentary about the accident that permanently damaged his brain and vision. Wittek is seen here in the air, seconds before crashing into the excavator’s metal arm.
Credit: Jeff Wittek
At the start of the documentary, Neistat asks Dobrik, “What do you do for a living, David?” It’s 2018, and Dobrik has floppy hair and a boyish, playful charm. “I convince people that I’m having fun,” Dobrik smiles playfully. “It’s all part of my act.” As Under the influence digging deeper, this act begins to look like a ploy to avoid reporting on the high-intensity, fast-paced and loose environment he fostered on and off camera.
He seems to rule out Wittek’s accident due to Wittek’s own recklessness. “Jeff, for some reason, thought I wasn’t going to get vaccinated,” he told Neistat. “So Jeff was like, ‘Let’s do something more exciting,’ and I’m always up for something more exciting, if someone comes up with an idea to do something cooler, I’m always up for that.”
When Neistat asks if Insider’s article was ‘fair’, Dobrik replies, ‘No. This article was written because this place wanted clicks,’ he says as he sits in a 13 million house funded by near-death stunts, a podcast called Views, and a line of “clickbait” products. He seems to see the woman’s rape story as a pesky rumor, more harmful to him than to her. “I don’t want to answer it because I don’t want to fuel the fire of gossip and hate and drama. I’ve always wanted to be a person who when you see me you’re just like, laughing or smiling or you’re excited to have me around… now I’m forever stained with something I don’t necessarily think I should be stained.”
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Dobrik wields a Boring Company flamethrower in a vlog titled “THIS STARTED A FIRE IN HIS HOUSE!! (SUNRISE)”
Did these events tarnish Dobrik’s image? It’s hard to say. In June 2021, he made his return to YouTube, Vlog Squad in tow, with videos that typically rack up over 9 million views each. Sponsors like SeatGeek have returned to fund it. And he’s promoting his Discovery+ series Discovering David Dobrik. Although Dobrik continues to publicly argue with Wittek and recently opened up about the rocky state of his sanity, the 25-year-old remains a better performer than almost anyone his age. More importantly, he still has millions of young people following his every move.
As it weaves an intricate tapestry of power, abuse and coercion, Under the influence also communicates the scope and gravity of Dobrik’s global influence beyond YouTube. Among other ventures, Dobrik has developed a perfume and a photo-sharing app, and has a pizza chain in the works. He transcends the platform that made him famous, as does his impact on the people who watch his videos. Netflix ends up passing on Dobrik’s show because “they don’t see how a YouTuber can transition into this world.” Neistat knows Dobrik has done it before.