David Dobrik, the 25-year-old YouTube superstar, has a grin that speaks a thousand words. Dobrik is the quintessence of cute — eager and baby-faced, with big dark puppy eyes and floppy brown hair combed so that it never seems combed. Clad in sweatshirts that he wears like pajamas, he looks like the comic-strip character Dondi crossed with Mark Wahlberg in 1995 crossed with the world’s smarmiest frat-house douche. When Dobrik grins, his face lights up, but he’s a self-contained firecracker. That grin is a smirk, a freeze-frame guffaw, and a snicker of contempt all at the same time. It’s the look of a class clown, of a kid who can’t believe what he’s getting away with, or of the nicest, most polite office colleague who is also, in case you weren’t looking, the worst corporate backstabber.
David Dobrik, in short, is a dude who looks a lot like America.
“Under the Influence” is a very absorbing, very disquieting, very meaningful-for-our-time documentary, directed by Casey Neistat (a YouTube personality himself), that charts Dobrik’s rise into becoming the buzziest and most infamous influencer of his generation. “Influencer” is a toxically insidious term, since it sounds cool and lofty and important but what it means is: someone who became famous enough on social media to get paid the big bucks for pushing video games, wine coolers, and Chipotle. And that’s all it means. That’s the influence part. (You’re a verité advertising spokesperson.)
The fame part of Dobrik’s rise was based on how he made himself into the new king of Most Insane Home Videos Nation. He posted his first vlog on July 31, 2015, when he was 19, and within a few years, after posting hundreds of vlogs with the dissolute rat pack of young jokers he called the Vlog Squad, he’d become a celebrity with 18 million ardent followers on YouTube, who were addicted to the promise that in a David Dobrik video, you never knew what you were going to see next. The “Jackass” TV episodes and movies always come with a disclaimer that says, Don’t try this at home. Dobrik was the guy who tried it all at home — his videos were “Jackass” gone DIY, full of stunts and pranks and naughty sitcom sketches held together by a self-adoring yes-you-can-do-this! bluster that might have been part of some sociopathic college hazing prankster revue.
We see clips of Dobrik on “Jimmy Fallon” and “GMA,” or horsing around in his vlogs with the likes of Justin Bieber, Kevin Hart, and Borat, and there’s a ton of footage of his appearances on campuses and other places, where he’s greeted like the early Beatles (though they never inspired signs that said things like “Look @ My TITS”). The movie presents all kinds of testimony about how the nature of fame that a YouTuber like Dobrik enjoys is more intense, more personal, more blah blah blah than the fame that defines traditional stars. Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise, Lady Gaga — forget it! Their fans, it seems, never felt connected to them in the total way that fans do to their social-media-driven influencer gods.
But this is all a hyped-up way of saying that in the age of aspirational diversion, where the only way anyone feels like they have a chance to make it into the one percent (and therefore, you know, have a solid and secure life) is if they are somehow able to get famous, a figure like David Dobrik represents the illusion of proximity to fame. You’re a follower; he responded to your message. So now you’re just three clicks of separation away from being a celebrity yourself (or something). In the film, we meet one of Dobrik’s superfans, Lexie Violett, whose life in a lonely-looking Coney Island apartment is lit up by what she describes as the religious nature of her devotion to Dobrik. His vlogs, and the prospect of having an encounter with him, occupies the center of her existence.
But, of course, there’s now a dark cloud shadowing David Dobrik, due to the scandal that, for a while, looked like it would take him down. In 2018, Dobrik and his fellow jackasses, notably the horndog carouser “Durte” Dom Zeglaitis, enticed a group of young-woman followers to come over to their apartment and agree to be part of a “fivesome.” The women were in college, and below the legal drinking age, but Dobrik’s crew plied them with hard liquor, and then one of the women — identified in the film by the pseudonym Hannah — went into the bedroom with Dom. Though she never pressed charges, she alleged that they had sex without her consent, and the allegation of rape tore the veil of naughty-boy innocence off the antics of the Vlog Squad.
Their behavior, captured in a vlog of that evening that Dobrik posted with the title “She Should Not Have Played with Fire,” was — in a word — predatory. After Hannah reached out to him, Dobrik took the vlog down, but it wasn’t until a year later, when Kat Tenbarge, a digital culture reporter for Insider, did a story on the incident that it came back to threaten Dobrik’s very existence as a YouTuber.
Casey Neistat began filming Dobrik for his documentary before the scandal broke. He charts the whole rise and fall, the latter as it was unfolding. Dobrik’s descent was exacerbated by another incident, when Jeff Wittek, for one of the Vlog Squad stunts, spun around on a rope hanging from a piece of industrial equipment and wound up smashing his face into the machine. He could have been killed (and still sees double in one eye). Dobrik succeeded, for a while, in suppressing the story, but it ultimately came out.
What all this adds up to is that David Dobrik became the superstar of a form of entertainment that is, in essence, a reckless brand of exploitation, with danger and illegality built into its appeal. But that’s where Dobrik’s boy-next-door persona comes in. Dobrik was born in Slovakia, but he grew up playing tennis in Illinois, and his buoyant frat-house loutishness is the gleeful quintessence of what was once called “all-American.” He’s like the poster boy for white privilege.
As “Under the Influence” reveals, he’s an extremely shrewd manipulator of his own image. As he tells Neistat, “I convince people I’m having fun,” and when the filmmaker tells him he’s good at it, Dobrik thanks him, adding, “This is all part of my act.” So is giving stuff away. At a college full of screaming fans, Dobrik reads a Post-It Note left on his car from a young woman who asks him to pay her tuition. She approaches the stage, and David, like a guardian angel, hands her a check for $15,000. (A girl in the crowd holds up a phone with the sign, “be my sugar daddy I need a computer.”) The filmmaker asks David where this philanthropic compulsion comes from, and he answers, “I love reactions. I love watching people react.” Not the answer that would be given by someone who’s not a terminal narcissist and self-promoter. But Dobrik made Giving Stuff Away part of his brand — which just increased his audience (suddenly he was a frat-house jester reborn as Monty Hall).
For a while, the corporations stopped giving money to him. It looked as if he was canceled. According to Kat Tenbarge, who is quite an astute observer of the new digital stardom, “You get the sense that all the people giving David all of this money, and all of this mainstream stature, were not watching the content. Because no corporation would willingly — at least, I would assume not — sign off on everything that was going on in those vlogs.” Stuff like drinking binges and winky versions of “Girls Gone Wild” antics. The actor and YouTube star Josh Peck argues, in the documentary, that the essence of YouTube’s appeal is that it’s not corporate. “You make this deal with Google,” he says, “and you never go into a boardroom, and you never shake a hand. There’s no way of really checking. And inevitably, a faucet of money starts.” He’s right about the lack of checking. But he’s wrong — as most of the fans are — about the notion that this is somehow “not corporate.” It’s just a new kind of corporate.
Dobrik does bump into a version of the YouTube ceiling. He pitches a gonzo variety show at Netflix, and is shocked when they turn him down. And after he’s hit with the scandal of being branded an enabler of alleged sexual assault, Dobrik, even as he’s still living in the $9 million Los Angeles home we see him purchase (his bed is wide enough for eight pillows), does his best to look chastened and abashed. For a time, all his sponsors cut him loose. But after taking a break, he returns to vlogging on June 15, 2021, three months after the Insider exposé. And his fans are there for him. He’s back on top. With assorted sponsors just biding their time. The premise of capitalism is that it follows the money. In the case of David Dobrik, the money speaks — and what it says is that he’s going to vlog, and a whole lot of folks are going to eat it up, even if that means Rome is burning.