Jawline Review: An Intimate Look at the Industry of Influence

Jawline Jawline - Liza Mandelup's feature debut, JAWLINE follows 16-year-old Austyn Tester, a rising star in the live-broadcast ecosystem who built his following on wide-eyed optimism and teen girl lust, as he tries to escape a dead-end life in rural Tennessee. Jawline was directed by first time filmmaker Liza Mandelup. The film made its world premiere earlier this year at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where it went on to win the Special Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker. (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

Documentary filmmaker Liza Mandelup grippingly follows the burgeoning fame of aspiring social media star Austyn Tester. 

In the opening minutes of Hulu’s latest documentary Jawline, we see the well-lit bedroom of a modest home in Kingsport, Tennessee. Austyn Tester clasps his hands and says, “God, give me the energy to do this.” He takes his phone between his fingers, opens up his laptop, and begins his routine. The unmade bed and cluttered floors underneath his feet serve as a reminder this bedroom belongs to a 16-year-old boy. Cut to the desk in the corner of his room. There, Austyn’s wood-paneled walls are covered with fanmade posters. Austyn strolls over to his desk in the corner, flicks on a few low-grade lights, and in an instant what looks like a self-care shrine becomes the backdrop to Austyn’s daily streams, recognizable by a following of hundreds of teenage girls – also known as his “followers”. 

Think of it as a career. Austyn does, each day, in order to gain (or at least sustain) followers, and to inch ever closer to his great escape from mundanity.

It’s ridiculous, sure, that a 16-year-old with no expertise is building a cult following through a series of screens as a career path. But it’s entertainment, and Austyn is one of the many would-be “influencers” who want their shot at self-made fame. Does it work? And if it does, then what? These are the questions documentary filmmaker Liza Mandelup unravels in her documentary Jawline

Jawline – Liza Mandelup’s feature debut, JAWLINE follows 16-year-old Austyn Tester, a rising star in the live-broadcast ecosystem who built his following on wide-eyed optimism and teen girl lust, as he tries to escape a dead-end life in rural Tennessee. Jawline was directed by first time filmmaker Liza Mandelup. The film made its world premiere earlier this year at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where it went on to win the Special Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker. (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

Though Austyn’s online persona is sought after more than the boy-next-door story, his efforts on Musical.ly, Instagram, YouTube, are not hard to come by. Take Bryce Hall and Mikey Barone, at the time of this documentary managed by an equally childlike, but governing Michael Weist, who runs his business like a German conductor. Bryce and Mikey have almost 2 million followers combined, thanks to Michael’s guiding hand and boyish good looks. 

Austyn’s nearly 20 thousand followers are a pittance in comparison to the influencers that headline national tours.  Through harried montages of fans crying, screaming, and hyperventilating as they meet their heroes, Mandelup provides a visual contrast to Austyn’s more modest appearance at the local mall, in which he and a handful of teenage girls follow him around, take selfies, and exchange hugs. At one point, one of the girls gives Austyn a wad of cash to ride on a scooter disguised as a plush animal. (For content, clearly.)

Austyn is like the early-year Jonas Brothers who started out playing to empty mall plazas and rose to become the household names on par with the Hanson brothers, or *NSYNC, or the Partridge Family. All of which attracted young love-struck teenagers by their sweeping good looks. Jawline shows Austyn on track to this type of fame, as he ups the ante to connect with his followers – first through live video streams, then through in-person appearances. And as the barrier between Austyn and his devotees dissolves, Austyn struggles to find bigger, more personal stunts to facilitate building his brand, all the while putting more of his identity into this elusive influencer fame. 

Austyn is one of the many would-be “influencers” who want their shot at self-made fame. Does it work? And if it does, then what?

Since social media has become a strange mix of communication and mass-market entertainment, the lines begin to blur between fact and fiction for many of these influencers. In theory, the open and honest influencers have already told their own story – all the content has been uploaded to their respective platforms. But the audience is no longer privy to motivation or honesty, despite the influencer’s assertion of the opposite. With care and precision, Mandelup’s Jawline sheds light on this phenomenon in a first-hand look at the depth, pain, and drive of being famous for its own sake.

Throughout these 99 minutes, Mandelup delicately observes the complete arc of a rising social media star, opting out of talking heads or flashbacks to support the story, and allowing the boys to air out their own laundry. The competing storylines of Austyn and his more popular counterparts complement one another to tell a compelling, poignant story of a class of people disengaged with physical reality. Mandelup pops in every now and again with her masterful direction, using flashes of embryonic lights between story beats to cleanse the palate as she weaves in and out of illusion and reality. This hits especially hard when Austyn is forced to return back to the local high school after his whirlwind national tour. As Austyn’s dream begins to lose its form, those lights grow ever more invasive. 

It’s no wonder that Mandelup won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance for Emerging Filmmaker: here, she’s found a way to not condemn the social media generation, nor scare millennials about technology (Black Mirror is more than enough, thank you) but to tell the age-old story of the discourse between dreams and due diligence in the wake of a new teenage obsession. Case in point, Sundance actualized Mandelup’s dream — one that will, no doubt, spark others. 

Jawline turns on the camera and smashes that like button on Hulu August 23.

Jawline Trailer:

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