An Unbiased and Completely True Review Of..."American Vandal"
What's it all about?
Hanover High School in Oceanside, California has a problem. 27 staff members had their cars vandalized by someone spray painting large phallic symbols on them. The staff already has their suspicions on the perpetrator of this heinous act, and based on eyewitness testimony, expel the class clown, Dylan Maxwell. Dylan, however, steadfastly maintains his innocence in this act, claiming that it was "funny and a cool prank", but that he would never perform something so bold as to garner Felony charges and 100K in damages to the vehicles.
Dylan and his friends The Wayback Boys regularly post "Jackass" style videos on YouTube, have gained a following and are known by faulty to be difficult at best to handle in the classroom. Add to this that Dylan himself has been known to draw phallic symbols on classroom white boards, irritating the teachers, especially Mrs. Shapiro, the Spanish teacher who has had many run-ins with Dylan and considers him to be her nemesis in the classroom. The school board holds a hearing, listening to the evidence of the eyewitness to the event and Mrs. Shapiro and decrees the aforementioned expulsion will occur.
Two sophomores who know Dylan through the school's morning video program believe that there is more to this story, as Dylan would have certainly claimed responsibility for the vandalism to boost his YouTube subscribers. Thus, an investigatory documentary is started by the two younger students to prove Dylan's innocence or guilt.
The two embark on a journey into the deepest recesses of high school angst, cliques, popularity, and the effects that social media has on all of it, all of us. They interview nearly every student on campus, several teachers, and Dylan's parents to find the truth.
The key witness to the crime may be lying, as the investigators begin digging into other statements made by the witness, all of which turn out to be false. Mrs. Shapiro just may be behind a vast conspiracy to remove Dylan from the school for the faculty's greater peace of mind. If Dylan did it, how could he have done the vandalism, deleted security footage of the parking lot, and drive to and from the Wayback Boys latest prank site all alone? Did Dylan have an accomplice? It is a true mystery to solve, and one that meanders wonderfully through it's suspects and theories.
So What Do I Think?
I am a true crime documentary junkie. I love the wandering narratives that are played out through the episodes, often finding myself drawn into the investigation myself through online searching while I am watching the episode itself. Even though this is not a true crime documentary, and is clearly made as a riff on the crime documentary format, it is incredibly well made and funny as all hell.
All of the characters in the mockumentary feel authentic, their portrayals encompass the range of emotions and reactions to revelations perfectly. Had this been an actual documentary series, I would have been researching this fervently to get deeper into the "lore" of the vandalism.
- Acting was spot on. Dylan comes off both as the lovable goofball who is wrongly accused as well as the duplicitous liar that could have been responsible for this act. Throughout the arc of the series, I felt that it was possible that he was responsible, only to change my mind, and then back and forth as the episodes continued.
- The surrounding cast fills out the high school kids really well. Almost all the standards are here: the dorky guy that nobody really likes and exaggerates things for the sake of looking cooler; the popular girl with looks and money who might just have some dirty laundry she doesn't want aired; the overachieving high school activist who protests any and every thing she can; the stoners and goof offs who hang around with Dylan and make ridiculous videos; lastly the two friends making the documentary that revel in discovery and clash about ideology and presentation of their findings.
- The cinematography was excellent. There was a genuine feel while watching that this was something being filmed by high school kids using high end DSLR cameras borrowed from the school media department. The creators were not shy in having people talk directly to the camera outside of the standard one on one interviews conducted with students, without overdoing it. I truly enjoyed how some people when in front of the camera were unsure how to act, giving the lens sideways glances and putting on a persona for the camera.
- Though most of the adults in the documentary came off as suspicious, possibly hiding a conspiracy to remove Dylan from their lives, there was one in particular that blew them all away. Mr. Krazanski the history teacher was a breath of fresh air. Here is a young guy, feeling like he's still new to the teaching game, trying to be the 'cool' teacher, but coming off as a goof. He is brutally honest for the camera, bad mouthing other staff, talking about letting students use cell phones during class because history is boring, even going as far to make inappropriate comments about a student. He was both a nice break of cominc relief among the staff as well as sad commentary on how a new breed of teachers can be manipulated by students to look cool for them, instead of being an authority figure for the student.
- This wasn't simply just a comedic take on the murder mystery documentary trope, but had some truly deeper take aways:
- I felt that Dylan was treated unfairly during the school boards meeting, touching on the innocent until proven guilty concept of our court system. Even though there was no concrete evidence against Dylan, sans an eyewitness having claimed to see him, and Dylan and his friends providing alibis for his whereabouts, not a single adult or student could fathom that he wasn't innocent of the vandalism. How many times in our society do we judge someone on their past behavior and focus solely on those negative aspects when they hit the spotlight, either famously or infamously. Just because Dylan had a habit of drawing penises on white boards in a classroom, should not be an automatic leap of logic that he is completely responsible for this.
- The documentary held no qualms with following the characters in the aftermath of the documentary becoming a viral sensation. There is so much hurt, betrayal, redemption, and emotion coming from all of the students and teachers involved, it was refreshing having a chance to see beyond the curtain where most documentaries end. If only more of the true life documentaries could follow their subjects afterward to show the ripple effect that entertaining the masses with fact, rumors, speculation and accusation impacts not only the subject at the center of the documentary, but almost all of those around them.
I cannot but highly recommend this as both a great satire piece on the fascination we have as a society to peer almost as voyeurs into other people's life as well as a truly funny presentation.