Despite how wildly entertaining “Jawline” is due in no small part to its lead, you wonder whether Austyn Tester should be a movie star. He wants to be, if for no other reason than it would get him out of the small town of Kingsport, Tennessee, and thanks to director Liza Mandelup, he’s also now all but assured some degree of celebrity because the charming earnestness that has led to building up a following of 23,000 fans on his web camming channel on YouNow is even more charming on the bigger platform of a feature film. But as Mandelup is careful to show, that fame is both fleeting and full of compromise, using Tester’s flirtation with becoming the kind of mega-social influencer that can make enough bank to be a full-time job as a cautionary tale for small-town kids everywhere who think they can be responsible for their own success after setting up a social media account.
Like being introduced to the baby chicks before a fox is let into the henhouse, “Jawline” follows the 16-year-old Tester around town where he and his brother take pictures and think about “poetry-like stuff” to post to Twitter and return home where he scares up a few bucks here and there making GIFs of himself and giving shoutouts to visitors of his cam shows. Appealing to girls his own age and slightly younger, it all seems very innocent and with Austyn’s hair carefully coiffed like Justin Bieber’s, pushing along positive messages he’s heard from others and appearing to be genuinely flattered by any attention he receives. But at a certain point, his viewership remains stagnant and it is here where Mandelup cuts back to Los Angeles to step inside the house of Michael Weist, only a few years older than Austyn but infinitely wiser in the machinery that actually makes social media stars.
It is to Mandelup’s great credit that Weist is given little backstory about how he got into the business or knows exactly who to call at Instagram to get one of his clients’ post featured since to watch the svengali in action is all you need to know, lining up toned and tanned heartthrobs at his hillside home and tweaking their every action for a heavily curated online presence. (A scene sure to go viral involves Weist correcting one poor chap’s tendency to introduce clips by saying “Hey guys,” fearing he’s alienating a significant chunk of his audience.) While Weist spends a part of every day scanning Instagram feeds and cams for talent he can mold, it becomes obvious that someone like Austyn is likely never going to come to his attention when the young studs he’s doesn’t know have hundreds of thousands of followers and in putting the two ends of the industry side-by-side, “Jawline” would be fascinating enough as a corrective to any rags-to-riches tales of social media stars.
However, Mandelup captures something far more profound about the transactional nature of social media and the values it shapes for those on both sides of it as the cameras roll. It’s troubling to see Austyn sign off each broadcast with “Don’t let anyone stop you from chasing your dreams” with less and less conviction, connecting his personal worth to his follower count, but even more unsettling to see at meet-and-greets he’s arranged at local malls how girls no older than 13 will bark orders at him with dollars attached, their attitude shaped by how the system is set up online. Although some will see Austyn as a dim bulb, lacking a formal education as part of his rural upbringing, the fact he’s arranged a meet-and-greet in the first place, just as more established social media stars would, is indicative of his savvy, and as “Jawline” progresses, it isn’t the intelligence of all involved that you question, but how thoroughly a culture of clicks has rewired their brains, having quantification of emotions as emojis and popularity in seemingly hard numbers from faves, followers and likes lead to conclusions that human rationale would previously have cut off at the pass.
“Jawline” wears such a weighty consideration of these issues lightly, with some of its silliest moments expressing some of its most serious ideas about perception versus reality in the social media space, and in making abstract both actual money exchanging hands and anyone over the age of 25 (save for a few short scenes with Austyn’s mother), Mandelup cleverly lets both its subjects and the audience feel out the parameters of this unknown territory together absent of traditional influence. For a subject that’s been covered by many others, “Jawline” breaks new ground, and in the process is more than likely to bust your gut as well.
“Jawline” will screen at Sundance on January 29th at 1 pm at the Redstone Cinema 2, January 31st at 9 pm at the Temple Theatre and February 1st at 9 am at the Holiday Village Cinema in Park City and February 2nd at 3 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinema in Salt Lake City.