There is a surprisingly humbling element to Liza Mandelup’s documentary Jawline, a bristling look at social media fame from the perspective of 16-year-old Austyn Tester. At first, Tester’s plan to use the power of positivity to become famous (a goal that he repeats often without ever really getting specific) rings like naiveté. Even as he cycles through a number of popular social media livestreams that offer little more than vague support and charming quips, one might feel the visceral desire to talk some sense into him, to help him understand that the fame he seeks might require something tangible, like talent or a product. But then Mandelup cuts to a theater packed with emotional fans of Julian and Jovani Jara, a set of perfectly affable twins who take the stage to spray silly string, enthusiastically hop around, and dole out hugs.
We never see them tell a joke, sing a note, recite a monologue, or sell a product. They are the product, and the parade of testimonies from girls swearing that the Jara twins’ no-frills videos have alleviated their intense sadness suggest that maybe Tester’s plan isn’t so foolhardy. Digital media has, for better or worse, drastically changed how people can achieve fame, and while that may elicit a few groans, Jawline doesn’t aim to pass judgment. When the narrative pivots to Michael Weist, a baby-faced social media manager who has fashioned an actual career out of helping young hopefuls like Tester navigate the unruly currents of online celebrity, Mandelup challenges our incredulity with moments that communicate his genuine expertise (as when he analyzes Tester’s social media engagement metrics in the third act).
An examination of the tenuous nature of internet stardom, Jawline captures Tester’s rise and fall without leaning too heavily on either the ridiculous or ingenious nature of it. Mandelup highlights Tester’s potential for success—again, something that only requires him to be nice and mildly entertaining on stage—as well as his eventual exhaustion once he fails to maintain the momentum. There’s a moment toward the end where, after the high of getting to tour is cut short by a deal gone wrong, Tester struggles through a livestream. He still delivers his handy lines of encouragement—“Be yourself, love yourself, you gotta chase your dreams”—but the zeal that once lured a group of fans to drive hours for a mall meet-and-greet is gone. Watching a child’s dream erode in real time is, to some extent, heartbreaking (whether you support the dream or not), but it also balances Tester’s and Weist’s theories of commodifying positivity by “faking it until you make it” with a glimpse at just how unsustainable that approach is.
Jawline is, admittedly, a rather narrow look at online stardom. All of Mandelup’s subjects are objectively good-looking, able-bodied, floppy-haired boys with white or light skin and personalities that aren’t especially distinctive (which isn’t a judgment—they’re kids who are presumably still figuring out who they are). In a way, that’s part of the point: These boys aren’t required to work hard, risk anything, or sacrifice much at all for their success. (Their privilege is emphasized by a clip of YouTuber Bryce Hall refusing to tape a video without a salad that he’s not even willing to make himself.) But there’s enough room to explore or, at minimum, acknowledge how this journey to fame would look for someone who identified as anything other than cisgender male. While so much of today’s meme culture comes from kids of color—some just as desperate to escape their circumstances as any of Jawline’s subjects—they don’t have the same access to opportunities as Hall, the Jara twins, or even Tester. One documentary can’t be all things to everybody, but this one still feels a little incomplete in its vision of ready-made celebrity.
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Mandelup does, however, treat both the internet personalities and the fans beholden to them with great respect. There are definitely YouTube stars who have cultivated a personal brand of obnoxious, sometimes harmful behavior and as a result feed our desire to dunk on the industry as a whole. But as Austyn Tester fantasizes about one day escaping his small town of Kingsport, Kentucky, Jawline reminds us that behind some of the silliest clips are still people who dare to dream.