For some viewers, Liza Mandelup’s Sundance award winner Jawline will seem stranger than fiction. For others it will hit hard as an exposé of the reality of seeking internet fame. A dreamy blend of documentary and Instagram-worthy visuals, it may be steering into spoiler territory to confirm that its story and characters are indeed very real, even though they gear their lives towards fantasy.
Charting the rise of aspiring internet star Austyn Tester as he tries to escape his life in Kingsport, Tennessee, Mandelup captures Austyn promoting his personal brand of positivity, intermingled with romantic imagery of a carefree teen summer. In a storytelling style reminiscent of Andrea Arnold, Harmony Korine and Sean Baker, Jawline eschews traditional documentary tropes and forgoes introduction to the subjects aside from Tester. Those well versed in YouTube controversy may recognise 21-year-old ‘manager’ Michael Weist as he commands his flock of demi-celebrities to create content lest they be replaced. Footage from around the Los Angeles mansion they share makes it clear that these are not business-savvy adults; these are boys so busy with their online persona they can’t take time to do laundry or even make their own lunch. It is this dream that Austyn is chasing.
If you had the pleasure of watching Jessica Leski’s I Used to Be Normal (NZIFF18), Jawline is the perfect companion, featuring life on the other side of the barrier. In the interviews with the squealing fangirls of Austyn and his fellow video stars, it’s clear that the engines driving this enterprise are the parasocial relationships forming between young women and their on-screen boyfriends. Far from casting judgement on any of the subjects, Mandelup presents a meditative narrative of contemporary digital teen life. — Kailey Carruthers
“Even Austyn, who dreams of escaping to California and upgrading his lifestyle from sharing a bed with his brother to, well, sharing a bunkbed with some other dude, trades truth for fans. At the start of the documentary, he asks his sensible older brother Donavan to tell him a joke while he takes his picture so he can genuinely laugh. By the end, he’s bragging to girls that he’s all dressed up in his nicest khaki slacks. Mandelup silently observes that he’s actually in swim trunks.” — Amy Nicholson, Variety