Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
In the middle of the documentary Jawline, 16-year-old nano-celebrity Austyn Tester organizes a fan meetup in a mall food court. A gaggle of teen and tween girls show up, and he soaks up their rapturous affection, offering compliments, hugs, and photos. Then, the group walks the mall together in a strange parody of a first date: Austyn in front, the girls trailing behind him, phone cameras aloft.
The moment is awkward but oddly winning, which is a sentiment that could apply to much of Jawline. Jawline is a nuanced exploration of digital celebrity and the gap between “real” and online lives, issues that are particularly relevant during a mass reevaluation of social media. But it’s also a timeless, bittersweet film about a teenager with ambitious dreams and few opportunities to realize them. “It’s hard getting famous,” Austyn notes, discussing his future as a social media star. “It’s real hard, actually.”
What’s the genre?
Indie narrative documentary. Unlike The American Meme, another recent film about online fame, Jawline doesn’t focus on huge names like Paris Hilton or DJ Khaled. It follows a handful of lesser-known figures, primarily Instagram model and Musical.ly (now TikTok) performer Austyn, whose life is captured in intimate detail over the course of months. The film is more meditative than explicitly informative, and while its subjects frequently talk about each other, it presents them without outside judgment or talking-head commentary.
What’s it about?
Offline, Austyn Tester is a 16-year-old boy from a poor family in Tennessee who lives in a small house with his mother and brother. Online, he’s something between a motivational speaker and a boy band heartthrob. Austyn’s charisma and clean-cut good looks have won him a devoted audience of teenage girls who leave adoring comments under his photos and beg him for a shout-out during video live streams. By building his internet clout, Austyn hopes to find a way out of his hometown so he can “spread positivity” across the world. And when he gets invited on tour with social media celebrities Julian and Jovani Jara, it looks like his work is paying off.
But online fame is a Darwinian pursuit — at least, that’s the view of Michael Weist, a 21-year-old talent agency head who’s building his own stable of social media stars. (If the name sounds familiar, it might be because Weist co-organized the infamous TanaCon festival, which is featured in a different documentary.) Weist’s storyline doesn’t directly intersect with the core narrative, but he serves as a guide through the larger social media landscape where Austyn’s dreams will be either realized or crushed.
What’s it really about?
The complicated emotional labor of social media celebrity and, more specifically, a subset of stars who deliver comforting and upbeat messages. Austyn’s entire persona is based on positivity. He spends his live streams complimenting viewers and exhorting them to follow their dreams, and if he admits to having any problems, he immediately segues into an inspirational truism about overcoming them.
Weist’s segments emphasize the performative aspects of social media, as he reminds his clients to project happiness and spontaneity even when they’re annoyed or burned out. But Jawline never portrays Austyn as inauthentic. It just makes his enthusiasm look exhausting — especially when it involves extended, quasi-romantic flirtation with people he’s never met.
Austyn’s audience seems composed entirely of teen and tween girls, and the film delves a little into why they (and others) connect with this brand of positivity, interviewing fans at meetups and festivals. A lot of responses echo older parasocial relationships with actors and musicians, as Austyn’s viewers describe him as a non-threatening fantasy boyfriend, or say his message helped them through episodes of bullying and depression. But like many other online performers, his appeal doesn’t hinge on a traditional artistic talent, just his ability to build a personal relationship with fans.
Is it good?
Jawline explores what’s unique about social media stardom without overemphasizing its novelty, so the film works as a dissection of modern digital celebrity, but also a classic story about beautiful young people struggling to get famous. It helps that Austyn is a genuinely charming protagonist, and it’s easy to understand why his fans like him, even amid a legion of nearly identical floppy-haired competitors.
The film acknowledges that both teenagers and celebrities are often ridiculous, via comic moments like Austin composing very bad inspirational poetry. Weist is theoretically the adult in the room, but he reads like a particularly self-aware kid caricaturing a Hollywood power player, reeling off his expensive shopping habits and instigating tense, snarky verbal showdowns with YouTube-star clients Bryce Hall and Mikey Barone. (Their relationship eventually soured, with Hall accusing Weist of sexual assault, then apologizing and settling a defamation lawsuit over the accusation.)
Still, the film isn’t mean-spirited or cynical about its subjects, nor about social media in general. It highlights the surreal modern state where social media participants are constantly accessible to a massive audience of strangers, and the phenomenon that YouTuber Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg has referred to as “forced positivity.” By the end of the film, it’s unclear whether Austyn’s brush with fame has left him better off or worse. But the internet still seems like a bright spot in Austyn’s life, and for his fans. It just comes with complications.
What should it be rated?
If not for the Motion Picture Association of America’s profanity guidelines, probably PG. Jawline is a poignant film about teenagers who trade on a squeaky-clean public image, and even the hedonists don’t get up to more than some anecdotal makeout sessions. It’s most likely to offend people who worry that today’s kids are more into selfies than sex, drugs, and rock n roll. But the kids do swear a lot.
How can I actually watch it?
Jawline doesn’t have a distributor yet. Director Liza Mandelup won Sundance’s “Emerging Filmmaker” award for US documentaries, which speaks well of its odds for getting picked up.