Premise: The film 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.
What is the American dream, if not to get rich and famous? In 2019, the quickest and easiest way to get rich and famous is to make it big on social media. Such is the subject of Liza Mandelup’s newest documentary, “Jawline”. The film splits its time focusing on two groups of influencers at various stages of success. First there’s Austyn Tester, a 16-year old high school dropout from rural Tennessee who wants to use his good looks, sunny disposition, and rabid online fan-base to “get famous, so then I can change the world.” The second half goes to a group of interchangeable teen boys (we’re never given their ages, but at best, they’re fresh out of high school) living together in an LA home under the iron fist of their manager Michael Weist. Theirs is a tightly regulated lifestyle where any time not spent posting, tweeting, live-streaming, etc. any branded content is met with Michael’s scorn. At one point, an argument ensues about whether or not to open a video with “hey guys”, lest they alienate their non-female fans. Even though it’s not as well done as the Tennessee portions, the LA half of the film mostly serves as a distant warning to Austyn: this is the fate that awaits the rich and famous in 2019. Thankfully, the amount of time spent between the two is more heavily weighted to Austyn and his struggles.
It would be very convenient to write off the content of “Jawline” as the deterioration of youth culture – and make no mistake, that is a valid reaction to a decent portion of the film – but Mandelup smartly shows there’s more than meets the eye. Austyn’s main goal is to use his YouNow – a live-streaming social media platform – following to gain representation and go on tour, where he can continue to spread his message of positivity and self-confidence. His motivational videos are like more articulate versions of Kayla’s YouTube entries from 2018’s “Eighth Grade”: if you can believe in and love yourself, nothing else matters, and good things will happen. One unspoken theme that genuinely works to the film’s advantage is the new status of masculinity in America. Here is a group of white teenage boys that take precious care of their eerily similar hairstyles, that would rather spend their days connected to their phones and practicing their karaoke than, say, watching TV or playing sports. To some extent, it makes sense. What teenager wouldn’t want a ravenous horde of (mostly) girls chasing them down and poring over their every move?
The scenes when the groups are on tour or meeting up with fans are among the highlights of the film. Nearly everyone in attending is screaming, streaming, snapping, and sobbing, at every up-close moment with the stars that they came to see. And it would be easy to sneer at these scenes and deride these girls for devoting their time and attention to something so banal. Especially when, once on stage, Austyn and his fellow stars essentially half-ass their way through some sing-along pop songs. But Mandelup wisely interviews a handful of fans at each of the events, and a common theme emerges; almost an unspoken cause-and-effect to the influencer boom. Many of these fans had to leave school because they were bullied or unhappy, and so they turned to social media and found new friends to entertain them.
Will Austyn finally achieve the fame he so desperately wants? The answer is kind of beside the point of the film. Rather, the focus is on this near-primal urge that befalls many of America’s teens to be loved and admired. After returning home from a brief stint on tour, Austyn’s house is in disarray, with trash bags and bottles littering the floor. The number of kittens in the house seems to multiply exponentially every time the camera cuts to them. Both Austyn’s brother and mother chide him for his laziness. In one scene near the end of the film, she pleads with him to return to school and warns him that he has missed so much time that he’s lucky he has an opportunity to eventually earn his diploma. Austyn can’t be bothered to look up from his phone.