Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

"There’s plenty of judgement to be passed, especially by cranky old writers like myself, but Mandelup does an admirable job of presenting her subjects on their own terms." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

While many documentaries use their medium’s power to take the viewer around the world, Jawline brings them to a foreign land that’s in their own backyard. It explores world of online celebrity, with all its enigmas and contradictions.

Director Liza Mandelup throws you into a strange, borderline surreal lifestyle and doesn’t let up until she reveals all its angles. This world contains teenage heartthrobs, girls who scream and faint like they’re chasing The Beatles and cocky agents who are as young as their clients. But it’s all based upon self-created content like lip-sync videos and live streams in which the good-looking boys talk into a web cam and answer questions from a text chat.

It soon becomes apparent that the equal-footing of internet output is an illusion. The biggest of these online celebrities have agents who make sure they maintain a stream of content at all times, much to the dismay of the poor kids who thought they were getting into this business so they wouldn’t have to work.

The heart of the film, however, comes in the form of Austyn Tester, an aspiring online personality from rural Tennessee who wants to pull himself out of a dead-end life. In that sense, having a nice optimistic personality serves the same purpose as being good at basketball serves the subjects of Hoop Dreams. As in basketball (and most other fields), commitment, focus and mental strength play a part in success. But there’s also a difference. The whole online culture is based on a feedback loop of validation. And when you get to the point that girls pay boys money just to be acknowledged, rather because they’re providing them anything of use, it takes on dark undertones.

There’s plenty of judgement to be passed, especially by cranky old writers like myself, but Mandelup does an admirable job of presenting her subjects on their own terms. There’s an observational quality to the direction and editing that fully immerses you in the ride. It’s only when you look back on the film that you realise just how well it covers so many different aspects of the phenomenon and lifestyle.

All these heartthrobs seem to have the same haircut — featuring a sort of curly puff that makes a wave over the forehead — and the same funny-nice-guy persona. They all parrot platitudes to their followers, mostly about how if you be yourself, good things will happen.

The most persuasive argument for this calling to even exist is that the girls who fall for these internet celebrities aren’t popular at school. A cute boy acknowledging them on a livestream gives them confidence and the feeling that they matter. Of course, the positive look fades when you consider that these guys are really only leading these girls on to generate income, but I suppose that’s a better motive than trying to have sex with them.

There’s a certain tragedy to the hollowness of it all. Whenever he discusses his motives and end goals, Tester's words are as vague and meaningless as the advice on a livestream. He wants to make a lot of money, he says, so he can change the world. There’s not knowing how you’ll get from A to Z, and then there’s not knowing how you’ll get from A to world peace. But perhaps the real shame is that Tester can’t find a calling in which his talents could affect change. Jawline’s true achievement is that even when it captures its subjects’ emptiness, it doesn’t forget their humanity.

Reviewed on: 22 Feb 2019
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The film follows 16-year-old Austyn Tester, a rising star in the live-broadcast ecosystem who built his following on wide-eyed optimism and teen girl lust, as he tries to escape a dead-end life in rural Tennessee.

Director: Liza Mandelup

Year: 2019

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: US

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