'Jawline': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Funny, sad and sometimes disturbing, but it could dig deeper.

Liza Mandelup's documentary is an eye-opening look at the realities of teenage social media stardom.

The ideal accompaniment for a screening of Liza Mandelup's new documentary Jawline would be a bottle of Geritol and a handful of wrapped hard candies. Because while this intimate depiction of the quest for insta-fame in a world of ubiquitous social media may fill you with incredulous amusement and unexpected sadness, one thing it will most certainly achieve is making anybody without a "teen" in their age feel almost insurmountably ancient.

It's not a wholly unpleasant sensation, just a sense of disconnection that occasionally verges on science-fiction.

Our hero is Austyn Tester, a 16-year-old struggling with the limitations of his rural Tennessee hometown. In a different generation, Austyn's version of the American Dream would involve parlaying a tangible skill into his ticket out, be it acting or singing or some form of athletic prowess. Austyn possesses none of those aptitudes. What he does have is a pretty face, an eager smile and fast enough Wi-Fi to let him spend hours each day talking with fans on social media platforms like YouNow. In an ecosystem of "boy broadcasters" with hundreds of thousands or even millions of fans, Austyn has tens of thousands — a community of young girls eager to watch him sit around doing little more than the occasional lip-syncing accompaniment to a current pop hit, willing to lap up Austyn's platitudes about believing in yourself, never letting anything stand in your way and always, as a group of comics beloved by Austyn's great-great-grandparents sang about, looking on the bright side of life.

It's easy to view Austyn as hopelessly naive, but he's a student of his environment. One suspects he's never put too much effort into his formal education, yet he's a voracious researcher when it comes to his chosen field. He has idols as freshly scrubbed and fundamentally vacuous as he is and he puts a reasonable amount of effort into taking notes and understanding the vast gap between his level of celebrity and theirs. He watches Julian & Jovani Jara, for example, and sees how their meet-ups with fans become seas of crazed devotees shrieking and crying like they're The Beatles, only without those pesky songs, and he schedules his own comparable meet-ups at local malls, where his crowd may not number a dozen, but those fans are no less grateful for a selfie, a hug or even, in certain rare circumstances, the most chaste of posed kisses. If every generation worries that the generation coming up behind them is growing up too fast, the boyfriend experience that Austyn is offering is presented as entirely pre-sexual.

If Austyn represents this nugget of perfectly coiffed, unformed potential, Mandelup offers Michael Weist as contrast. Michael is the CEO of a business managing boys with bigger followings than Austyn has reached. Michael has a house full of young men whose every hour he controls. He organizes their photo shoots and live streams, oversees product integrations, takes the boys out on lavish Rodeo Drive shopping sprees and rewards them for days well spent with in-home massages. He's a harsh taskmaster and you'd probably call him a pimp, except that the marketplace is, again, pre-sexual.

Mandelup builds out this contrast well. Austyn's hometown is a template of blue collar ruin — rundown factories, empty fast-food chain, a car on cinderblocks in every yard. Austyn lives with his mother and siblings, all perfectly willing to believe that Austyn's dream will eventually filter down to them. Their small house is practically overrun by kittens who, if we're being perfectly honest, would probably be as likely to go viral on social media as Austyn. There's an early inclination to laugh at Austyn and his collection of self-help books and his endlessly chipper persona, an inclination Mandelup fights. As a cynical Gen-Xer, I might judge Austyn, but Mandelup doesn't, filming him with all of the consummate care and affection that he dedicates to himself. Mandelup has enough compassion for Austyn, famous but still measuring the fruits of his fame in residual checks of under $10, that the documentary makes you care when he gets an opportunity to go on an appearance tour with some of the big names in boy broadcasting and he simultaneously has his eyes opened to a wide world outside of Tennessee and to the harsh realities of his dream.

How harsh are those realities? It's here that I'm honestly not sure and where Jawline feels like it's either pulling punches or viewing this world through slightly rose-tinted glasses or uninterested in rooting around in the business' darkness/underbelly. The doc gives the sense that exploitation is going on here, without fully deciding on the victims and the victimizers.

Is Michael the victimizer? There's an inference he's doing well for himself, but Mandelup doesn't want to (or isn't able to) get into the exact dollars and cents of his business practices, so it's never clear how successful he is, how much he's passing along to his boys and how legitimate or illegitimate his racket is.

Are the girls who fuel this cult-of-personality industry the victims? I'm not sure how much they're paying for these events and conventions, but Mandelup includes several segments in which the girls talk to the camera about what they're getting out of these exchanges, the personal connections they feel online that they might not be forging in school, where they sometimes feel bullied or estranged from peers. I don't quite get it, but I understand.

I'm less able to understand if the audience for social media stars in this genre is exclusively young women, and this is one place I can't help but feel Mandelup is turning a blind eye. The on-camera interviews are exclusively with fans of roughly Austyn's age and exclusively female fans. When Michael is literally photographing two of his pedomorphic charges — their ages aren't mentioned, yet there are empty beer cans in their house — hugging topless, are we really supposed to think there's no gay audience at all? Is it a small audience? A big audience? Are the interactions different? Michael talks casually about his own sexuality and he makes one brief mention of his guys having male fans, but the conspicuousness with which they're invisible here is eyebrow-raising.

There are a lot of tougher and more complicated questions that Jawline dances around exploring. It's an engaging, amusing and occasionally jaw-dropping portrait of a world that could hardly be more foreign to most documentary fans. But it's just those fans who are likely to wish it peeled back a few more layers.

Production company: Caviar
Director: Liza Mandelup

Producers: Bert Hamelinck, Sacha Ben Harroche, Hannah Reyer
Executive producers: Michael Sagol, Jasper Thomlinson
Director of photography: Noah Collier
Composer: Palmbomen II
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

99 minutes