Sundance premiere: 'Jawline' explores internet subculture of handsome young social media stars with ardent followers
Liza Mandelup's film reveals a world misunderstood by many adults, but of huge emotional power for millions of girls
In the brilliantly-directed documentary Jawline, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Austyn Tester's mom says of her handsome son, "He's got that strive about him."
What 16-year-old Austyn is striving for, simply put, is fame--but of a distinctly 21st century variety. He dreams of becoming a success in "live internet broadcasting," a subset of social media where cute boys engage with fangirls daily on YouNow and similar platforms. Stars in this online arena can attract hundreds of thousands of followers or more--a relationship that can be monetized through meet-and-greets where adoring girls pay to meet young heartthrobs.
Yes, my looks help me in this industry but it's my message and my motivation that I want to use for my presence on the social media realm.
For Austyn, success in this field could be his ticket out of Kingsport, Tennessee, a smallish town where he lives in very modest circumstances with his mom, brother Donovan, a sister and a bunch of cats.
"What really motivated me to seek the public attention was just I acknowledged early on when I was new to social media the power of social media influencers," Tester told Nonfictionfilm.com at Sundance. "The things they do on social media the younger audience is like, 'Whoa, I want to do that.' They start making decisions because these people they look up to, you're influencing them."
The above statement might sound frightening to some parents--the idea that their impressionable daughter could be influenced by someone whom their teen doesn't really know. But Austyn and many of the other live broadcasting stars in the film appear to be using their influence for good.
"When I was aware of this power you had, I was like, 'Wow. I'd love to be able to have this power but use it in a positive way. Change people's lives," Tester says. "Also being hype on the social media realm you make good money so that you can invest that in good things. For me, I'd love to have a lot of money one day invested in my small town but also, most importantly, I just want to inspire people and motivate them to do what they seek to do."
I think girls at that age fantasize about someone just being nice to them, really, and paying attention to them.
Mandelup filmed many meet-and-greets--some of them small get-togethers in malls, others on a much grander scale, where Tester and fellow stars like Jovani and Julian Jara--twins with a huge social media following--dispensed hugs to trembling girls. It melted my heart to see, but maybe I'm a softy.
"I think a lot of the girls that are watching people like Austyn, they're escapist. And they're trying to get out of their situation, whatever their situation is, whether it's family problems, they're being bullied at school, whether they have self-esteem issues," Mandelup observes. "I think they're looking for a way to feel more comfortable and confident in themselves and what girls want at that age is validation. And I think that the way that Austyn treats them, he kind of just in the simplest of ways just tells them, 'You look pretty.' And 'I hope you had a good day.' And, 'How was your day?' I think girls at that age fantasize about someone just being nice to them, really, and paying attention to them."
Tester comes off as utterly guileless and sincere. Some viewers might dismiss him, mistaking his Tennessee lilt and humble background for a lack of discernment. But I found him to possess surprising wisdom in such a young person (he's now 18). I asked him how he had managed to remain positive when some of his early experiences were quite difficult--physical abuse from his father (according to his mom) and hunger.
"I'm always positive because why do I got to look at a struggle as a bad thing? I've grown so much throughout the film, too," he responded. "I started learning from famous, positive leaders who have motivational things that I look up to, like the Dalai Lama. It teaches you to just look at your struggles as lessons. I'm in control of my emotions so why would I want to be upset about my struggles? They're just lessons. Just use them to help me and stay positive."
Another fascinating character in the film is Michael Weist, around age 20 at the time of filming, who possesses a wisdom of a different sort--in the area of business. He has already built an empire developing social media stars like Mikey Barone (more than half a million followers on Instagram) and Bryce Hall (1.5 million followers on Instagram). He "gets" that world at an intuitive level well beyond the grasp of most people who didn't grow up with it.
"It can be kind of overwhelming for people to understand what social media is, more than just like Facebook posts or a tweet," he notes. "It can be much more difficult to understand the ecosystem that is the entire community of social media--people having conversations with their best friend online who they've never met but then they're going to come to an event, a meet--and-greet, and meet them for the first time and it's going to change their life forever. It's kind of hard for people to grasp but when they do it's kind of an amazing thing."
Weist is openly gay (commenting at one point that he is "way too homosexual to be eating pizza out of a box"), an interesting counterpoint to Austyn who says he is perceived as gay by classmates because of his live broadcasting endeavors. Tester's somewhat androgynous appearance, like that of the Jara twins, seems significant to their appeal to teen girls (and no doubt to some gay male fans).
Austyn accepts that people view him as handsome, but in a curiously matter of fact way--like it's a random twist of fate that does not entitle him to feel superior.
"I remember I asked what do girls like about boys these days and [someone] definitely said jawline," he recalls. "I didn't even know what a jawline was at first. My best friend told me, 'Girls like it when a guy has a good jawline.' I was like, 'Really?' He was, 'Yeah.' I was like, 'I got one?' He said, 'You got a pretty good jawline.'"
That's one physical attribute these stars of a new facet of mass communication have in common.
"I think the entry into this world for these boys," says Mandelup, "starts with a beautiful chiseled jawline."
Her film is an acquisition title at Sundance. Negotiations are ongoing with potential distributors.
"We're just hoping a lot of people get to see this film because that's the point. And we also hope that people that are of all ages, all generations, everybody can appreciate the film because it's a human story about Austyn's struggle and the age-old tale of wanting to get out of your town as a teenager, having big dreams," Mandelup comments. "I think those are all things that I related to when we were making the film so I think it's a universal message in that way."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.