1 Hr., 39 Mins.
Jawline August 30, 2019
aking a photo is a sacred ritual in Jawline (2019). As the documentary, which has been directed by Liz Mandelup, opens, we meet a teenage boy, Austyn Tester, and an unnamed friend. Austyn, who is skinny, has cutting cheekbones, and an easily teasable shock of corn-yellow hair, is something of a star. Popular on YouNow, a YouTube-like service where American nobodies can host live-streams as if they were celebrities,
interacting with fans through the screen, Austyn needs to grab a promotional photo in this particular instance. The setting is decidedly unglamorous — he chooses a nameless brick wall on the corner of his hometown, the minute Kingsport, Tennessee. But Austyn, being the focus, knows that location doesn’t matter all that much. It’s about him taking center stage. He soon realizes, though, that what he wants at that moment cannot be achieved: his friend is decidedly not a good photographer. After striking several poses, Austyn gives up and concludes that he’ll have to get a selfie some other time and place.
It wouldn’t be quite right to call Austyn an “influencer.” It wouldn’t be quite right to call him a wannabe influencer, either: he does have a number of “fans” (at least at the start of the movie). Later, we’ll watch as he chats, predominantly with teenage girls, online. He has a little camera station in the corner of his bedroom. On YouNow, where he often trends high on #boys, squeal at just about every word he utters. I wondered: why? It’s cheekbones and the proclivity to say, “you’re beautiful,” I guess. And the light, once-in-a-while messing up of the otherwise perfectly coiffed hair. Despite some of the outward perfections, there is a much-more-noticeable un-self-awareness on the part of Austyn that makes it clear, from the start, that any victories he sees early on will be ephemeral.
Growing up in the social-media age, Austyn knows that fame can be attained by anyone. But, being a small-town 16-year-old, he doesn’t understand that many of his online-famous peers tend to have a “talent” or “brand,” however frivolous, to help them boost their platform. (Some, even if appearing vastly unfunny to older generations, could be considered comedians; others can so sagaciously control their image that they might be considered models.)
Austyn is sweet. He’s such a naif, in fact, that I found my heart chipping whenever he said something particularly hopeful. But he doesn’t have any discernible talents or developed point of view, which can also make him a tad vexing. He typically speaks so quickly that his words almost crash into each other, have a slurriness to them. It can sometimes be difficult to tell if he’s simply excited to share something or if he’s fumbling, at a breakneck speed, to find the “right” thing to say, which he’s probably heard elsewhere.
Austyn believes his all-important brand is “positivity,” which mostly involves him going on in inspirational-speaker platitudes. He thinks he can change the world so long as him saying things like “anytime you feel like you ain’t worth anything, or you just feel like no one cares about you or you’re not good enough, let me tell you something: you are good enough. That’s what makes us beautiful: we’re one of a kind; we’re different” can reach a wider audience. The fact of the matter is that he wants to be famous; what he doesn’t want to do is invite in the epiphany that, to be famous, you typically have to do a bit more than tell people they’re beautiful and be enviably telegenic.
ustyn’s experiences as a baby would-be influencer are compared with the experiences of more-successful teens living in Los Angeles — a city Austyn sees with moon eyes. But the situation we see there is rather hellacious. We are brought into a white-walled-and-ceilinged house in the city. Several young men like Austyn live there. At the head of the house is Michael Wiest, a social-media manager who has, as he
proudly shares, the ability to make someone of Austyn’s anonymity skyrocket to fame. He knows what sorts of photos and videos the public (i.e. straight teenage girls) will be most partial to; he knows how frequently you need to post to gain traction; he knows what sorts of events you need to attend to get noticed by prospective admirers.
Wiest’s on his part inflated expertise lends itself to grating behaviors. He regularly fast-walks around the house nagging his acolytes to post this selfie, publish this video. Michael, who has a strange wisp of white-blond hair on top of his skull, with the sides shaved, reminded me of an angry cockatoo in those moments. We cannot deny that his methods work, though. When researching some of the clients who appear in the movie, we see that their follower counts are astronomically higher than Austyn’s.
The voyeuristic looks into Austyn’s life, and then into the ones of this cader of influencers, have no connection for most of the movie. But then, at the end of Jawline, Wiest hears of Austyn and cynically announces, “I wouldn’t touch him.” I assume that Austyn would sink into a blue-period-style depression if he were to hear that, but secretly I was relieved. I didn’t want him to pursue social-media fame in the long run, and I didn’t want him getting involved with Wiest, who was recently accused of sexual misconduct by two of the boys featured in the documentary. (This is something the film grapples with: we see Wiest’s anger and confusion but don’t hear from the young men who made the accusation; later, they apologized, making it all a bit dubious.)
The Los Angeles scenes are meant to be sobering this-is-what-Austyn’s-life-could-be-like detours. They also give us a better idea of what it can take to be a successful influencer. (Though we know that the majority of social-media stars don’t all live together in a miserable-looking, amply windowed house, the scenes underscore how banal the influencer profession can be — and how warped the relationship is between crafting and the finished product.) I was totally dejected during these stretches. Not just because being an influencer seems by all accounts like a psychically draining, ultimately thankless and tedious job, but also because of how clearly we can see that in these young men has been imbued an idea that what they’re doing is vital, without them ever noticing the exploitation and commodification that comes with it.
Austyn gets a couple of tastes of larger fame in the movie. Neither instance is what he thinks it will be. Early in Jawline, he schedules a meet-up in a mall with some of his fans. All of them are teenage girls. And all of them, though frantically excited to meet him, also treat him alarmingly. Toward the middle of the bonanza, one young woman demands that Austyn ride one of those rideable, drivable stuffed animals, essentially forcing the five-dollar bill into his sweaty palm. When he swerves around on the fuzzy vehicle, he’s a zoo animal. Then, later, he’s manipulated into giving his phone number to one of the girls, and she’s worryingly zealous about it. It will “not be OK,” she bleats, if he doesn’t know how to spell her name perfectly. It will also be inexcusable if he doesn’t text her back. If she said such things in a joking tone, perhaps it would come across as charmingly overwrought. But her affectations suggest that she would either burst into tears — or even kill Austyn — if he were to fail on either front.
We see that most of the female fans who devote themselves to boys like Austyn — who, basically, are cute and nice to them through a laptop or phone screen without offering much else — possess a similar sensitivity. Mandelup briefly talks to girls who have cut themselves in the past; she also talks to people who have been bullied, who have unstable home lives. Boys like Austyn, who incessantly tell these girls that they’re special and pretty, become unhealthy founts of temporary remedying. Which is why Austyn, after not posting for even a few days, can so quickly hemorrhage fans. Once the source of the you’re-beautiful pick-me-ups proves itself as unreliable as life, moving on is a given.
Austyn later goes on tour. The endeavor is supported by a Texas-based manager who’s known for supporting the careers of the young “twinfluencers” Julian and Jovani Jara, who are the headliners. But Austyn eats almost none of the fruits of his labor. His fanbase doesn’t really build after the fact. And because of a few clauses in the contract he doesn’t closely read, the manager is the one who gets the financial benefits. The mall experience appears to lift Austyn up more than it doesn’t — even though I’d think to have to parade around in such a way wouldn’t be very much fun — but the tour letdown leaves him crestfallen. But internally I was happy; the 16-year-old is inadequately equipped to someday work with people like the aforementioned Wiest.
Jawline leaves a mark, though, because Mandelup so prudently captures why being an influencer, in the way Austyn wants to be, has such an appeal. It begets celebration for being supposedly yourself, without, it seems, having to strain too hard, and from an outsider’s perspective has the potential to make you feel bigger than you are. Austyn is an especially fascinating figure in part because of the environment in which he has grown up: financially unsound; living with a family where the matriarch has no problem reminding everyone that she’s feeling particularly bad today. There’s a wide gap between his real life and the pretend world in which he temporarily takes on demigod-level notoriety. For him, influencing — since there doesn’t seem to be a better term to use in this instance — promises that he’ll not only be able to rise above his dismal origins without having to have a particular talent but also be appreciated in ways that he isn’t, at least in such a voracious fashion, at home.
The dream is over by the end of Jawline. Austyn has gotten a lot less passionate about YouNow and the like, has dropped out of high school, and hasn’t reaped the benefits of that previous tour. It’s hard to watch him have to get acquainted with the truths of the cruelty of the social-media “gold rush,” as Wiest terms it. But that he’s able to move past it relatively unscathed just might be more of a positive development than he thinks it is. B+