HBO’s The Neistat Brothers is not really a documentary series, and it’s definitely not a “reality show,” by any network’s standards. It’s best described as a collection of artful, thoughtful, and playful short films, loosely strung together to form stand-alone episodes. Each installment is comprised of hours of footage collected from the titular Van and Casey Neistat’s lives, and the result is both whimsical and neurotic — like a Wes Anderson film with Michel Gondry’s special effects that’s been narrated by Dave Eggers. Sort of like visual scrapbooking for the McSweeney’s set.
Their obvious hipsterati influences notwithstanding, the Neistats have been making their high-quirk shorts for years, and earning critical acclaim. From homemade boat races to the pursuit of a beloved bag left in the back of a cab, their content is both emotionally accessible and visually interesting.
It helps the Neistats’ cause (and their series) that their interest in film and photography extends beyond blatant ego massage or voyeurism, both easy traps for documentarians. Van, often bearded and the older brother, quotes Godard, while Casey makes an in-flight plea that Werner Herzog be given their footage should their plane crash-land. They may sound like pretentious name-dropping, but such moments also indicate that these guys have done their homework.
They’ve learned this much: the very act of filming changes filmmakers and their subjects in ways too complex to be ignored. And so the Neistats’ work amplifies these effects, spotlighting the seams in production with handmade title cards or shots of themselves recording themselves in mirrors or on-screen. Casey takes his girlfriend (and his camera) to the Dominican Republic while he constructs a mediation on whether or not he should dump her. Intentionally self-reflexive and self-scrutinizing, the piece is marked by a rag-tag charm, and genuine love of the medium, rather than attempting to be “profound.”
Repeatedly, the episodes offer combinations of effects, so that cavalier affects help to manage difficult emotional situations. Casey tells the story of his nine-year-old son’s conception (with Casey’s then 16-year-old high school girlfriend) as a preamble to the boy’s short film, “The Blue Giant” (which stars Casey in the title role). And Van uses the series as an excuse to look up his father, whom he hasn’t seen since he was three years old. Eschewing instructive soundtracks or tight close-ups, the Neistats’ emotional landscape is so beautifully spacious that it offers a rare TV experience: reality that feels almost real.