American Vandal (2017)


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PENIS.

Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) is every high school stoner we either grew up with or still know. He sees the turns, never the roads ahead. His aspirations are to attend college for “some engineering shit” and maybe open a snowboard shop after graduation.

What else? He speaks with a mumble that could use subtitles. His friends are a pothead clique called the Wayback Boys, named after their YouTube prank channel where they fart on toddlers and push over Porta Potties. Dylan has strong feelings toward his on-and-off again girlfriend, Mackenzie Wagner (Camille Ramsey) though it’s questionable whether that derives from real love or Mac being an attractive sex partner. Whenever they break up, the stupid shit Dylan pulls to win her back signifies something.

Students like Dylan have existed for decades, acting like monsters, smoking forests worth of weed and terrorizing the world around them; the difference is they preserve their youthful idiocy on social media. If they make it through college then reality punches them in the mouth and they’re forced to finally grow up. In the present day and time, Dylan is the resident class clown. So when he’s expelled for spray painting penises on 27 cars, it’s easy to understand why.

Dylan’s problems aren’t over. The penile vandalism has totaled $100,000 in damages, and Dylan faces an upcoming criminal hearing. A conviction means not only paying but also serving possible prison time.

Enter Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) a student from the school morning show which Dylan was a part of. Though he doesn’t particularly like Dylan, Peter sees a strong case for proving his innocence. Accompanied by his producer Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), Peter makes a documentary to probe into the likelihood of Dylan’s guilt, and along the way penetrate the ultimate question: if Dylan didn’t draw the dicks, who did, and why?

One question is whether this joke can hold up for eight thirty-five minute episodes. It does. If you’ve ever watched or listened to an entire multi-part crime documentary on Netflix, then American Vandal is familiar territory. Take Serial or Making a Murderer, replace “killer” with “dick vandal,” throw in jokes, add a labyrinth of high school immaturity and you’ve got the perfect summary of American Vandal.

Peter starts by deconstructing the school board’s case against Dylan. Circumstantial evidence would have made the majority of it if not for two central figures. Alex Trimboli (Calum Worthy), the school board’s star witness, claims to have caught Dylan rose-handed spray-painting the cocks. There’s also Ms. Shapiro (Karly Rothenberg) the school’s beloved Spanish teacher. Shapiro has endured Dylan’s antics for four years. She makes it no secret that her move to expel him has shades of wrath. Nevertheless, Shapiro presents a damning piece at the hearing: the fact that Dylan made a habit of drawing dicks on her whiteboard.

The eyewitness and scorned teacher were enough to send Dylan home. But as Peter discovers, questions abound. Alex is a huge liar who makes up stories about beer binges and sexual exploits to cover up being a permavirgin dork. Shapiro was so hellbent on expelling Dylan that she may have fabricated evidence. Continuing from there, Peter combs through the usual crime documentary suspects: the prosecution’s questionable timeline; inconsistent penis art sample matches; an elusive voicemail; and a possible conspiracy within the administration’s ranks.

Peter and Sam pivot between handling the project with professionalism and amateur flailing. They’re good at chasing down leads and capturing beautiful establishing shots. But they are still kids from the school A.V. room, subject to any young person’s shortcomings. They can talk about Ms. Shapiro’s suspicious behavior all they want, but when they confront her their nerves lock up. Driven as they may be, they’re dealing with authority figures who have the power to suspend, expel or arrest them.

There’s also the matter of Peter disregarding private affairs. In the interest of solving the mystery he makes everything a public record, and as a result wrecks relationships, murders reputations and ruins livelihoods. The best of these incidents is Mr. Kraz (Ryan O’Flanagan), “That Teacher” who goes to dangerous lengths to be “one of the kids.” We have to wonder if Mr. Kraz’s lack of a filter or Peter’s journalistic ethics gets the teacher fired.

What’s especially hilarious is how Peter treats all the subject matter with such straight-faced seriousness and casualness, even when investigating mismatched mushroom heads or who gave who a handjob. When we see hysterical video footage of the often referenced wild party, Peter handles it like he’s covering a chili cook off at the annual county festival—or better yet, another everyday train wreck to walk past without looking twice.

American Vandal holds up. It’s a solid parody that hits the funnybone on several levels, lampooning crime exposes, poking fun at modern high school debauchery, and of course, telling dick jokes. That is until the final episode, when all the accumulated repercussions and hard truths halt the comedy in favor of somber poignancy. Peter faces consequences for exposing everyone’s secrets on YouTube. And Dylan, the kid who talked funny, pulled stupid pranks on everyone and had terrible grades? Well, it turns out he is a vulnerable human under the class clown act and we’re supposed to feel guilty for laughing at him.

And that’s not fair. It’s like if Christopher Guest came out at the end of This is Spinal Tap and said, “Hey guys, all kidding aside, those drummers are dead and you need to realize how serious that is.” I get what creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda are doing here. They want American Vandal to feel like a real documentary with repercussions, but the tonal shifting is the kind that gives audiences whiplash.

Regardless of that pratfall, there are two other reasons American Vandal is worth checking out. First, we haven’t seen a good teen sex comedy in about ten years. It’s high time we got a new one and American Vandal is the best thing we could ask for to fill the void.

Second, the twists, along with the players involved, gives the mystery instant appeal. There are so many layers, leads and red herrings that it’s impossible to stop watching until the end. In addition, the characterization runs deep. People who start as background extras come to life as their importance increases. Everyone feels real as opposed to caricatures or archetypes; that they were cast based on looking like high school students helps. I ended up caring, in a most sincere way, about who drew the dicks.

There are a lot of hits and misses in Netflix’s billion dollar original content blitz. American Vandal, I’m proud to say, is a gem among the rocks. It’s a great four hours of comedy until the funny deflates, but even then it’s worth staying for the conclusion.

FINAL GRADE: B

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