By Neil Giordano
A Screenager Star is Born?
We are raising screenagers, am I right? Is there anything that can’t be found, obsessed over, scavenged, bought and sold, or loved that isn’t on a screen? In 2019, Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame have metastasized and then been commodified into 15 seconds. We are in a new universe in which our children compete to become “Instagram-famous.” The kids love it. Fame is fame, and to recycle an old-fashioned sentiment — that’s entertainment!
All this cultural fodder and more can be found in the intriguing new documentary (streaming on Hulu) Jawline, which reveals a way of life that is mesmerizing, heartfelt, and ultimately dismaying. The documentary both celebrates and criticizes the frenzied world of teen boy “influencers” who build fan bases of thousands of young, female fans through social media and live-streaming platforms. First-time feature director Liza Mandelup wisely chose to focus on one boy as her protagonist. In his story can be found all the triumphs and pitfalls of influencer culture, a contradictory stew of fame-seeking, exploitation, and optimism.
He of the titular jawline is one Austyn Tester, a cute, wholesome, starry-eyed 16-year-old, trying desperately to hitch himself to the fame machine. It’s the classic American story: young good-looking naive boy hopes to make it big and get out of his one-horse town and find stardom in Los Angeles (or for Austyn, at least Houston). But what exactly does stardom mean in this context? It turns out to be as illusive as it is all-consuming.
For anyone over the age of 16, this is new territory, so let me fill in a few blanks. The phenomenon of teen influencers has generated a new vocabulary: “broadcasting” is what Austyn says he is doing, live-streaming himself to his slightly younger female fans on chat platforms like YouNow (no, I hadn’t heard of it either). He also has accounts on Instagram, Twitter, Musical.ly (now-defunct), and any number of other social media outlets. A laptop or a cell phone is all he needs to do his thing. His bedroom is dressed up with a few cheap lights; or maybe he walks around outside with a friend holding the phone. What’s Austyn’s talent? Mostly just talking about the prosaic inanities of his day and spreading good vibes. He’s all about “positivity”– evangelizing to the girls with fluffy anodynes that they’re beautiful, that they should pursue their dreams, and that they shouldn’t let anyone tell them otherwise. It would be pathetic and sad if it weren’t so blandly sweet. Austyn’s aw-shucks innocence and self-deprecating humor makes him perfect crush material for 12-year-old girls scattered around the country, especially those who feel they don’t fit in.
Austyn might not have any real talent to speak of, but neither do the other influencers we see throughout the film. It’s like boy band culture, but with no singing.The guys are all non-threateningly good-looking, but with a knack for flashing an occasional smoky glance at the camera which makes the girls swoon. When the guys run out of things to talk about, it’s time for handstands, or dares, or lip-syncing or, if the girls are lucky, maybe some “guesting,” where they interact one-on-one with their fans. On more than one occasion, Austyn picks a few lucky girls at random and brings them next to him in split-screen, often to much giggling or screeching. The more composed girls show us that both they and Austyn savor the experience: it is a chance for the girls to interact with their crush, a chance for him to feel good about himself in that he’s making them feel good. There’s not a lot of there there, so to speak, but it is billed as a path to stardom and wealth.
And wealth is to be had, though who profits is questionable. Juxtaposed with Austyn’s story is a darker counter-narrative, where we see what might become of him if he makes it into ‘the industry’ (yes, they use the word) that has sprung up to market, sell, and exploit influencers. There are tours to be part of, videos to be made, products to be promoted — all set-up to separate young girls from their hard-earned (or more likely, their parents’) cash.
Personifying this part of the documentary’s arc is the requisite villain, Michael Weist, a talent manager barely older than his clients. A self-styled Henry Higgins, he warehouses his up-and-coming talent in a stylish manse in a leafy part of Los Angeles, berating them to create video after video, and to update their Twitter feed according to a schedule he ascertains to be the most lucrative. He clearly chooses his clients carefully — and then milks them for all he can. Weist knows all-too-well that his “talent” has a shelf life. We don’t see it explicitly, but once the lads have generated any income (most likely giving most of it to Weist given his exploitative contracts), he disposes of them.
Weist is the cynical foil to Austyn’s boundless optimism. Austyn is all “positivity” and love while Weist spews imperiously haughty pronouncements about “rebranding” and “quality control” that underlines the fact there are a hundred other Austyns waiting out there for a shot at fame. And he will eventually find the biggest money-maker.
Incidentally, queer theory will have plenty to say about the images of teen masculinity seen here. Weist’s stable of highly coiffed, ab-rippling, hairless-chested boys — often seen sitting in front of their computers shirtless — reflects an ideal of young maleness that has been metastasizing since at least the rise of reality TV shows like The Bachelor. At times, it feels as if the male influencers are selling a brand of air-brushed underage pornography. That their fans/groupies are mostly young girls makes the visuals somewhat more palatable. But the openly gay Weist also mentions at one point that there are male fans out there — but we never see who these males are. The disturbing implications of this side of the ‘business’ are, unfortunately, not pursued by the filmmakers.
Thankfully, the girls show another side of the phenomenon, one with a more affirming takeaway. Interviewed in on-the-street fashion, they speak of being bullied or harassed in school, of being called ugly, of families where they get no support. They are surprisingly of all body types and races and fashion styles — their adolescent awkwardness is what binds them together. These are not queen bees but underdogs, and Austyn’s clichéd words, as dopey as they might seem, make them feel good about themselves.
And the girls lots of spend money to feel good about themselves, both online (through “gifts” and “bars”) and in real life where they might pay $200 to attend a meet-and-greet. The fact that many of the girls don’t come from affluence underlines an ironic connection with Austyn. This aspect of the film turns Jawline into a subtle Marxist commentary on social class in America. Austyn is the classic striver, a Horatio Alger in high-top sneakers, living with his siblings and his long-suffering single mother, hoping his DIY ethos will lead to fame and fortune. Meanwhile, sitting pretty in La-La Land, Weist cashes checks and enjoys shopping at Cartier on Rodeo Drive, exploiting the Austyns of the world.
Self-awareness is probably not Austyn’s forte, but I’d like to watch him on YouNow and see his reaction to Jawline.
Neil Giordano teaches film and creative writing in Newton. His work as an editor, writer, and photographer has appeared in Harper’s, Newsday, Literal Mind, and other publications. Giordano previously was on the original editorial staff of DoubleTake magazine and taught at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.