TRULY TUESDAY: "JAWLINE" ON HULU
Liza Mandelup's documentary about the business of being a teen influencer, "Jawline," manages to walk a pretty fine line. The film recognizes the artificiality and, ultimately, the hollowness of social media, particularly when one starts to view it as an industry rather than a pastime. But Mandelup is not here to totally condemn this world and the people who dream of joining it; the finished film actually seems to sympathize with its subjects more than you'd maybe expect. This isn't a cinematic rant that everyone should stop looking at their tiny screens and rejoin the world; it's a reflection of the impact those tiny screens have had on the practical reality around us.
The main subject of "Jawline" is 16-year-old Austyn Tester, a poor kid from the tiny town of Kingsport, Tennessee, who dreams of wealth and fame, and believes that livestreaming and Instagram likes will be the way to get there. Tester doesn't come out and SAY this, though. Instead, he spouts platitudes about positivity and self-love during his nighty broadcasts on YouNow and his daily Snapchat streams and tells us he's seeking fame only to spread his upbeat message to more people. He certainly seems genuine and sincere, at times almost incapable of guile or malice. Tester does want to help people by repeating these mantras; he just also wants to escape boredom and poverty while he's at it. And who could blame him? Part of the challenge of Mandelup's film is that it's coolly evaluating Tester and his world but it's clearly hesitant to judge him. He's young. He didn't choose any of this. In another era, he'd be trying to join a boy band or act in a Disney Channel sitcom. There have always been good looking kids from the middle of nowhere chasing their dreams. It's just that, in 2019, the dream isn't to dance or sing or act. It's just to become famous. The fame is both the journey and the destination.
The film doesn't just profile Tester, who builds up his community enough to land a manager and go on a tour with some other young influencers. It also takes in his peers and colleagues, including high profile manager Michael Weist and two of Austyn's tourmates, twin DJs Julian and Jovani Jara.
The inclusion of Weist, a notable figure in the LA digital media world and one of the minds behind the 2018 TanaCon fiasco, honestly threatens to kind of derail the entire rest of the project. He's running a flophouse for talent that he represents, where he harangues them to make videos, makes an ostentatious display of his wealth and occasionally interrupts with unhelpful commentary. (At one point, a major argument erupts between Weist and a client, Mikey Barone, over whether to introduce a video with the phrase "Hey, guys..." or "Some of you girls..." We later find out that Barone and partner Bryce Hall accused Weist of sexual harassment, an allegation that led to a $5 million lawsuit.) Weist appears to offer the industry perspective -- a reminder that the people organizing and profiting from all of these videos and posts and likes and shares are not the kids who appear in them -- but he's too big a personality to not become something of a distraction.
Mandelup also turns her attention to the fans, the (mostly) girls who watch Tester's livestreams and show up for his live appearances and buy tickets to these "concerts." And it's here that "Jawline" becomes not just provocative but fascinating. We've spent almost 90 minutes focusing on how the world of being an influencer is phony. It's just another business, running up the numbers for venture capitalists who invest in apps and providing some agency somewhere with another name to package on a brand deal with Skittles or whatever. But for the fans, it's real. They don't care that Austyn came up with his random feel-good homilies 3 minutes before going live, or took 18 dumb-looking photos before the one that was deemed good enough for the Gram. They like him, they like feeling like they're his friends, he makes them happy, and that's good enough.
Where to Watch: Hulu
Running time: 97 minutes