American Vandal: Autopsy of a Mockumentary

On the occasion of its 30th anniversary, the cult It happened close to you benefited from a cinema release this Wednesday, November 9. Everything has already been said about this comic tour de force: a parody documentary (also called a mockumentary) in black and white, featuring the young Benoît Poelvoorde in the role of a serial killer. The team making the mockumentary will follow this serial killer in his murderous routine and make the spectator discover his techniques and his intimacy. When the film was released in 1992, the mockumentary genre was not yet something accepted as it is today, even if a few rare works had already initiated the codes of this new film style before it. This anniversary is an opportunity to see or see this film again which, thanks to the creativity of its directors Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Poelvoorde himself, continues to make people laugh but also sometimes makes you feel uncomfortable in front of this character. abject and quirky, brilliantly embodied by the Belgian actor.

Even if it is not the first, this film nevertheless contributed to the democratization of the mockumentary. Since the 2000s, parody documentaries have been flooding the big and small screen: The Office (the original British version created by Ricky Gervais in 2001, and revived in an American version with Steve Carell in 2005); Borat (directed by Larry Charles in 2006, with Sacha Baron Cohen); Derek (again by and with Ricky Gervais, 2012); Vampires in privacy (created by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement in 2014) to name a few. Present on all fronts, Netflix has been able to appropriate this genre to also offer little nuggets to devour, such as the recent Death to 2020 and Death to 2021 or the series featured in this file: American Vandal.

American Vandal is a series in two independent seasons, taking the form of a parody documentary and created by Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda in 2017. In the first season, the starting point is simple: In Hanover High School, the twenty-seven faculty cars were vandalized. The teachers are shocked to find huge red spray painted penises on their vehicle. Dylan Maxwell (played by Jimmy Tatro), a rambunctious high school student and troublemaker, is the prime suspect and is immediately framed for the crime. But another student, Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez), is convinced that something is wrong with this accusation. Helped by his friend Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck), the two high school students will do everything to prove Dylan’s innocence by making an investigative documentary that will make them famous in their establishment.

I’ll be frank, there are countless reasons to immediately look at this little gem. To begin with, we are in the presence of a lesson in tone control. Despite a starting situation that may seem trivial or uninteresting, the creators manage to make us adhere to their game from the first minutes of the first episode, and this thanks to a very simple technique: everything is to the first degree. This series, despite its nature as a crime documentary parody (explicit parody of Making a Murderer and Serial), isn’t really funny to speak of. You will not choke on laughter, but you will be captured by the seriousness of the characters who will strive to find out who the hell could have drawn these d*cks (you will hear this term about a million times, much to your delight). This narrative narrated in the first degree, carried by an exemplary acting game, gives real credit to this joke which is not one. The creators and their characters confirm an essential lesson of cinema: comedy is serious. And it is there all the genius of the tone of this first season which gains our adhesion because we also want at all costs to discover the truth. Which brings me to the second blow of American Vandal : his scenario.


We’ve seen detective series, investigations, psychological thrillers that turn our brains around and leave us speechless at the end (“WHAT! Was it him from the start?”). Being something particularly prized in the cinema and in the series, the form of the investigation therefore becomes increasingly difficult to renew and reinvent. No problem for Perrault and Yacenda. With each episode and until the last second of season 1, we spend our time changing sides, developing a new theory or even remaining stunned in the face of a new clue or revelation. The two creators take us in all directions and develop an extremely complex story with many twists and turns, without ever running out of steam or losing our support. They give us to see a gallery of suspicious characters, each more crisp than the other, and the form of the mockumentary adds essential added value to this scenario and to the very first-degree tone of the series.


But beyond its mockumentary form, why is American Vandal hits the bullseye? We will find the answer in the social context it deals with. Beyond a survey of high school students that seems politically inoffensive, American Vandal is a series that questions the foundations of the American judicial system. In truth, the series is about a teenager who has everything from the classic image of the dunce and whose accusation and dismissal, even wrongly, would not bother anyone. Expedited good justice, without proof and just carried by “it’s my version against yours”. A typically American justice that works from a simple but alarming observation: which story will please the juror the most? The notion of truth then becomes cloudy, embalmed in a silky fabric of storytelling. A respected, vandalized teacher will always trump a troublemaking dunce. The characters of Peter and Sam, thanks to their documentary, are there to call to order: even if everything indicates that he is guilty, it must be proven. More than the American judicial system, it is also the harsh reality of appearances and prejudices, extremely present in our schools, which is questioned in this series. Without going as far as an extreme act of vandalism, how many students have been victims of injustice simply because of their appearance or the prejudice they aroused in others?

Clearly, American Vandal is a deceptively naive mockumentary, in which humanity and empathy are developed in each of the characters, completely shaking up our own prejudices. She skilfully reminds us that every act or word has consequences and that it is sometimes necessary to show restraint and distance. So, remember: the next time you’re spray-painting dabs on your teachers’ cars, consider putting on a mask against the toxic fumes.

American Vandal: Autopsy of a Mockumentary –