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When asked about the protagonist of his debut feature Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham explained that he wrote Kayla Day instead of a male character because, when researching chatty kids on YouTube, he found that “Boys talk about Minecraft, girls talk about their souls.” This binary divide might give girls a better chance of finding a sensitive audience, but it also warns boys of their incompetence if they don’t play games. Where is the pale male dreamboat who just wants to talk supposed to find his kingdom?
The image of the perfect online influencer raised on Myspace, Tumblr, and now Instagram has long been a nice white boy with undebatable bone structure and a megawatt smile. Liza Mandelup knows this, and makes such a boy the subject of her case study in her new documentary Jawline. The film chronicles the day-to-day and attempted rise of Austyn Tester, a 16-year-old wannabe broadcaster living in rural Tennessee who’s trying to make a better life for himself by telling girls online that they’re beautiful and reminding them “No matter your current situation, you can do what you want in this life.” He wants to spread positivity… and get better WiFi.
Austyn’s not a soul-searcher, but he’s also not a Minecraft player. Jawline scrutinizes the brand of influencers (specifically male, extremely heterosexual) who don’t do either, and don’t do much else, relying on the gifts of biology to flesh out a personality. It works for a while, because viewers like to be complimented and to watch an attractive, familiar talking head give them a pixelated smile on a lonely day. Mandelup isn’t deluded about the limited shelf life of this love affair, but she isn’t cruel about those who pursue it, either. She sees the crevasses in Austyn’s ambition, and also gives a voice to the girls watching him. Parasocial relationships have recently become more vulnerable. PewDiePie and Casey Neistat, two of the most financially successful YouTube stars, both released videos in 2017 bemoaning the illusory and engineered happiness of the internet (which should ring alarm bells for Austyn, who forms his brand around unrelenting positivity). Fans are wising up, and they need more. It becomes clear that something must change if Austyn wants to go the distance.
On the other side of the country, 21-year-old social media manager Michael Weist wastes no time explaining why Austyn’s career might not have skyrocketed yet. “Every social media kid you can think of, there’s too many of them.” Weist lives in a house in Los Angeles overflowing with attractive young men meticulously planning their output to keep fans both happy and numerous. He manages, among others, best friends Bryce Hall and Mikey Barone. If you look them up on YouTube, the first result has a thumbnail of the two boys, shirtless, that reads “ASKBRIKEY (DIRTY).”
By no means failures (see Hall’s more than 800,000 subscribers), Hall and Barone still exemplify the concern that building an empire on good looks alone can prove unreliable. When things turn sour with Weist, the manager shrugs. “Because [they] don’t have a specific talent, that makes them more replaceable.” Their downfall warns Austyn of the challenges to come. Girls who eerily follow him around a mall during a makeshift meetup may have waited seven months for this, but it doesn’t mean they’ll stay after a selfie if he has nothing more to give.
Austyn has potential, and his charm softens not just fans and friends, but also a local manager who sees a spark. When he tastes fame with a first touring experience, he asks the others on the road, Julian and Jovani Jara (aka 99goonsquad on Instagram and TikTok), for advice. “How can I be a likable person?” This is Austyn’s problem; the Jara twins have a similar haircut, build, and smile to him, but he’s asking the wrong questions. The brothers produce music and DJ — their content is consistent, sure, but it’s also specific. Instead of taking their advice to find himself, Austyn corrects their grammar.
Jawline doesn’t look down on Austyn, Michael, or any of the other boys. Curious cinematography slows the action, shining a flattering light on well-moisturized skin and painstakingly coiffed quiffs. The design seeks to understand the depth of these personalities, working to maintain a brand while offering audiences what they deserve. Austyn realizes by the end that he’s not enough. After his life on tour ends and he ignores the Jaras’ question about whether he’s watched their Minecraft vlogs, he takes some time away from his own reflection to sit down under the night sky. For the first time, he stops recording, and writes a poem. He’s not finished trying to change the world yet.
Jawline releases in select theaters and on Hulu August 23. It will be playing in New York City at the IFC Center (323 6th Ave), and in the Los Angeles area at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 (673 East Colorado Blvd, Pasadena).