'Jawline' Review: When The Dream of Social Media Stardom Turns Nightmarish

Liza Mandelup makes an extraordinary debut with this look at an aspiring social media influencer.

Austyn Tester appears in Jawline by Liza Mandelup, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute 

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Liza Mandelup’s excellent feature debut, Jawline, is a sharp piece of sociological inquiry that probes a strange corner of the Gen-Z world: vlogging, or video blogging, which has become all the rage in the era of YouTube, Vine, and other video-based social media. But vlogging is not just an extracurricular: it’s a subculture; it’s an outlet; it’s a career. It has created a community that is both easily accessible and utterly bizarro. And, most enticing to some, it can make you very rich and very famous — fast.

The documentary offers us two stories on opposite ends of its chosen timeline: that of a social media star’s rise. There’s 16-year-old Austyn Tester on one end as an aspiring “influencer,” and 20-year-old talent manager Mikey Weist and his clients on the other, having already made it big in Los Angeles. The narratives seldom converge, but they both pull back the curtain on the ugly reality of this strange new artform: financial predation, personal brand over personality, and a generally cutthroat environment where ruthlessness is not just acceptable but necessary.

Tester, who lives in Kingsport, Tennessee, tries to broadcast almost every day to a small but mighty online following. Usually, he gives generic affirmations in his Southern slur: “Remember: don’t let anyone stop you from chasing your dreams!” Sometimes he allows a viewer to “guest,” meaning he shares the screen with them as they join him on his broadcast. And sometimes he will mention how resentful he is of his small-town life.  With the support of his mom and brother, he wants to be a social media star so that he can inspire people and start over elsewhere.

Well, not just anywhere. He aches for Los Angeles, but the Los Angeles of his dreams is jarringly different than the one that exists, judging by what we see of Weist’s life. The social media scene in L.A. is cultish where Tester imagines community, cunning where he sees savvy. It’s not hard to imagine why the business model of poaching despairing teenagers from the middle of nowhere and promising them luxury and stardom (all you need to do is film this five-minute video!) is so successful.

Weist is also a Tennessee native, but he and Tester are worlds apart. Swaggering around his home in a suit, we get a sense for this precocious show business personality, maybe 19 or 20 years old. He moved to California from Nashville to build a company that manages social media talent, and he has a pretty good pitch: “Do you want a 40-year-old who hasn’t been on social media ever, or do you want someone who’s your age?” We can tell based on interactions between him and two of his clients that they are not friends, but it looks as though they all live together. Parents are virtually unheard of. By the end of the film, a lawsuit has been filed.

The film is clear about where it stands: this is an odd business, and these arrangements are unusual. The tinkling soundtrack is eerie, becoming especially unsettling when paired with collage-like interludes, a dreamy blur of selfies and meet-greets and pushy fans and too-bright lights, just a day in the hazy life of a social media influencer. It’s not just that dreams don’t always pan out the way we hope they will; it’s that they could be a complete mirage, a cloak of idealism that covers up something far creepier underneath.

The documentary’s most notable strength is how it values the young, overwhelmingly female fans of social media influencers. As Weist bluntly puts it, “Do you think they’re the captain of the cheerleading team? Do you think they’re the richest girl in town? No.” We can glean that, for many of them, their only refuge from dysfunctionality is watching funny videos from their favorite vloggers. It’s not just a matter of lust or sexuality — they find consistent happiness in this community, with one girl remarking that they keep her from cutting herself, and another saying that she thinks of her favorite social media stars as brothers.

The downside to a business that depends on young people, both as creators and consumers, is that they’re easy to trap in a hoax. When Tester is invited to go on tour with two influencers he admires, he goes through something akin to culture shock, briefly treated to a lifestyle that enraptures him but that he could not otherwise afford. A sleazy manager never pays him for his work, and when he arrives home he is depressed and hardly in the mood to broadcast, thereby decreasing his follower count. He thinks that school and regular jobs are not just beneath him but would be humiliating to return to.

Watching Jawline, you can’t help but be reminded of a youth beauty pageant, of little girls putting on makeup and puffy dresses and being trotted out for applause and scores and validation. Vloggers are in familiar territory, abiding by strict criteria that can guarantee them success; if they slip up, they’ll surely fail. Maybe it’s not so bad that Tester is having setbacks in his quest for stardom. It’s a haunting environment: people are commodities, and if they can’t make money, they might as well not exist at all.