'Snervous Tyler Oakley': Film Review

Tyler Oakley - H 2015
Rae Marshall

Tyler Oakley - H 2015

More of a valentine for fans than a deeper exploration of a personality or phenomenon.

YouTube phenomenon Tyler Oakley's Slumber Party tour is the subject of this documentary by Amy Rice ('By The People: The Election of Barack Obama').

YouTube stars have started garnering mainstream traction in recent years. Actor-turned-YouTuber Troye Sivan (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) has thrown himself into a musical career (he recently performed on The Tonight Show). Joey Graceffa peddles calendars and now — post-coming out — a book. The documentary Snervous Tyler Oakley, directed by Amy Rice (By The People: The Election of Barack Obama), will likely be one of the first in an avalanche of non-fiction features investigating the personalities that populate this — at least for many comparatively unconnected adults — rather unknown realm. The good news for other directors planning their YouTube celebrity-themed works is that Rice hasn’t made the definitive film about Internet stars yet, though fans of Oakley, a future The Amazing Race contestant, and those with an interest in the phenomenon will pretty much get what they came for here. The TV-ready feature opens in limited release Dec. 11 and will of course be a much bigger title as a streaming and download item.

As YouTube celebrities go, Oakley is among the brightest and most upbeat, a chatty youngster (now 26, and a vlogger since he was 18) who starts each of his videos with a cheerful "Heeeeeeello everyone! My name is Tyler Oakley." This petite but motor-mouthed young man is the queer Tasmanian Devil of YouTube. He talks a-mile-a-minute, has dark-rimmed glasses that are as much a part of his personality as Dame Edna’s spectacles were essential to hers, while another defining feature is the constantly evolving hairdos, which change color more often than Lady Gaga’s, his be-all-and-end-all pop queen (Madonna’s too old for him, or he’s too young for her, depending on how you look at it). Oakley is the virtual, unthreatening, gossip- and One Direction-loving chirpy gay best friend, whose audience consists mainly of tweenage girls and young queer boys.

What Rice demonstrates very well is how many of those are out there and crazy about "Ty," as she follows Oakley on his so-called Slumber Party tour, in which he visits fans in several cities in North America, the U.K. and Ireland. After a more exclusive meet-and-greet earlier in the day, there’s an (one assumes early) evening event in which Oakley runs around a theater stage, dressed in a colorful onesie. Up there, he interacts with his adoring and often ear-splittingly loud fans, plays games with them and receives special guests from his entourage, including fellow YouTuber (and his everyday manager) Korey Kuhl and Oakley’s Michigan-based mother, affectionately nicknamed Queen Jackie. (She’s the one who coins the term "snervous," for “scared and nervous”.)

The film is structured rather conventionally in chronological order, starting, after a brief flashforward, at Oakley’s condo in Los Angeles, 24 hours before his departure for Dublin, the tour’s first stop. As the disciplined and methodical Kuhl helps the creatively chaotic Oakley with his luggage, the latter simply comments: "He runs my life." Not much later, audiences learn he’s not kidding, when the star’s mother reveals that it was Korey who’d called to thank her for some cookies on her son’s behalf. Even if you’re Queen Jackie, it seems, you have to deal with your starlet son’s manager for something as simple as a "thank you."

Indeed, this early on, it seems like Oakley might be taking the "I’m a star"-thing a little too seriously. But as soon as they’re on the road, it becomes clear he really needs someone to help organize his life and protect him from some of the madness. He’s ambushed by screaming fans who wait for him not only at the theater venues but also at his hotel, which freaks him out.

On the road, the fans move in small cliques, though some of the venues can hold several hundred people, which is impressive. But the extent of his fandom is much larger than that: In one sequence, at his mother’s home, Tyler waits for his channel’s subscriber counter to hit 7 million (it’s clear he’s been there six times before and the novelty’s worn off). In one of the film’s short, direct-to-camera interview segments that are sprinkled throughout, he muses on the impact of his online videos, much of which will remain unknown to him (gay rights are, of course, a big topic). He likens it to a musician who won’t know what effects his songs have on people specifically, though he’s grateful if people feel they’ve found something for them in his work.

Though he stresses time and again it’s hard to explain exactly what he does to people who don’t know YouTube, his videos or his tour, the film gives a reasonably good overview of what people can expect from the Oakley brand and Rice manages to do this without excerpting too much of the star’s own online work. Part of Oakley’s appeal is his plucked-from-the-streets "normality," and he readily admits he can’t sing, dance or act and would never call himself "an artist" (he prefers the term "personality").

But unfortunately, the film doesn’t do all that much to highlight or investigate the inherent paradox in someone who’s known as a virtual friend to millions, going on tour to meet his online fanbase, and then requiring a manager and an entire touring team to bring his boy-next-door persona to the people. It’s not easy to add much in terms of new revelations about someone who has posted countless videos about his own life online for the past eight years. Biographical titbits, including his coming out story and how his parents reacted to this is largely familiar material, while a childhood eating disorder is only fleetingly mentioned (perhaps it is more extensively dealt with in his book, the launch of which is also shown here).

That said, there are some fascinating cracks in his constantly upbeat personality that Rice manages to smuggle in. A little more of this material, or at least a little more carefully edited and juxtaposed with the rest, might have made the film less of a valentine for Oakley fans and more of a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a relatively new phenomenon in general and this "personality" in particular. 

Camerawork is often a little chaotic but with plenty of goodwill, much like both the film's subject and YouTube's DIY aesthetic.

Production companies: Awesomeness Films, Big Frame Productions

Writer-Director: Amy Rice

Producers: Amy Rice, Tyler Oakley

Executive producer: Brett Bouttier

Director of photography: Ronan Killeen

Editors: Julio Perez IV, Ezra Paek

No rating, 82 minutes