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.
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
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.