For anyone over a certain age, the job of social media influencer exists purely in quotation marks, and anyone aspiring to be one is contemptible at best. But the new documentary “Jawline” offers a surprisingly compassionate look not just at one rural Tennessee kid’s bid for virtual stardom, but also at the digital celebrity-industrial complex that perpetuates itself by dehumanizing people into content-generating commodities.
Tracing delicate lines back to the heartthrob mall tours of the 1980s, director Liza Mandelup unobtrusively follows her subject, Kingsport, Tenn., native Austyn Tester, as he stakes his claim in the online space. Using platforms like Instagram and YouCast to interact with fans, Tester’s irrepressible enthusiasm and fresh-scrubbed sincerity comes across immediately, making him an ideal focus for the film — particularly given the skepticism and outright distaste many have for this growing community.
But what the film quickly reveals is that despite these technological advances, and the exponentially-growing obsession with living online, it’s undeniable how similar things are today to at least a generation or two of the pre-internet era, when young media figures were similarly shopped to the public without preparing them to handle that level of attention, especially when it disappears.
Compared to some of the other “celebrities” in the film, Tester is a small fry; at the beginning of the film, his success has largely been achieved alone, with only his family and friends helping boost the signal of his appropriately bland form of teenage positivity. But Mandelup juxtaposes Austyn’s efforts to level up with the perspective of a seasoned talent manager, Michael Weist, whose understanding of the business inevitably proves to be greater than his clients’, at least insofar as he always remembers it’s a business. The two threads of “Jawline” dovetail into one another as Austyn gets a manager of his own and embarks on a tour with several more established celebrities, and he soon learns that wanting to be famous, even in as ephemeral an industry as this one, demands hard work and constant vigilance.
In another film, Weist would easily be a villain; an openly gay man shaping content for maximum appeal to teenage girls, pestering his clients to record videos, and otherwise cracking the whip behind a bunch of sexy-but-wholesome teenagers trying to have fun online. But in a next-generation economy where “likes” translate to actual cash, and one’s percentage of online engagement reflects a more material sense of popularity, he for better or worse is the one to remind his clients, and the audience, that there’s money to be made if you’re willing to put in the effort. Even when his dismissal of Tester’s prospects in one scene are entirely impersonal — he simply doesn’t have the stats or the content to earn Weist’s attention — it cuts deep given how much we know (and are beginning to care) about the young hopeful.
Particularly for a kid like Tester, who’s dirt-poor and has little else to do but daydream about a more glamorous life, one can understand, at least through Mandelup’s lens, why social media fame seems like a viable option. Outwardly, it doesn’t demand any special talents or even seem like work, but for somebody as cute and personable as Austyn, the attention he can attract from weeping teenage girls sure must feel like real validation.
Still, even amidst his moments of modest triumph, such as during an “appearance” at a local mall where he’s followed around by a small throng of teen girls, he’s still mostly an object to them; they instruct him to perform at their request, and grow quickly impatient when he doesn’t have the spelling of one of their names ready to go. And though neither party knows it at the time, she will almost certainly move on to more adult romantic obsessions, while he’s left with only the faint memory of his time as a heartthrob.
Mandelup previously directed the 2016 short nonfiction film “Fangirl,” focused on young women who obsess over boys like Ausytn, and in “Jawline” she exudes a remarkable, evenhanded sensitivity to both sides of that relationship, including their perspective on camera and in voiceover to showcase what they see and hear from him that resonates so strongly. What’s especially effective here is how even in an environment — and a professional community — where people are constantly filming others and themselves, she manages to seem invisible.
Real feelings are revealed, and the real truth of a moment or situation is exposed, whether it’s the dozen photos Austyn asks his brother to take before finding the right tousled look to post on Instagram, or the petulant exchange that ensues between Weist and one of his clients after suggesting he changes his verbiage to avoid alienating fans.
Additionally, a beautifully watery, dreamlike score from Netherlands-based musician Palmbomen II adds extra dimension to this often seemingly unreal adolescent-driven universe of wannabes and the people who will help them make it happen, for a price. Even as it ends on a question mark regarding Austyn’s future as an online celebrity, Mandelup’s film offers a tender yet surprisingly thorough look at this one kid and at an entire ecosystem that, again, it’s easy to dismiss or criticize.
And maybe it should be criticized, but not for the reasons those people of a certain age think; “Jawline” is not, as one might assume, about one spoiled kid’s efforts to turn self-absorption into financial success. Rather, it documents the unexpected timelessness underlying a hopelessly contemporary phenomenon by looking at the very specific ways the current generation of teenagers engage the world around them, pointing out the inevitable, inescapable sameness of the way the world always has, and will, look back.