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Hulu’s Jawline is an empathetic, terrifying documentary about teens who livestream their lives

In Gen Z’s world, anyone can be a star — for a little while.

Austyn Tester, the young protagonist of the documentary “Jawline,” stands in front of a pink backdrop with his eyes closed.
Austyn Tester in Jawline.
Hulu

Every week, new original films debut on Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services, often to much less fanfare than their big-screen counterparts. Cinemastream is Vox’s series highlighting the most notable of these premieres, in an ongoing effort to keep interesting and easily accessible new films on your radar.

Jawline

The premise: Teenaged boys become stars — especially to teenaged girls — by harnessing the power of streaming platforms and spreading “positivity.” Jawline takes a look at the culture that’s developed around self-made digital stars, and in particular 16-year-old Austyn Tester, who lives what he sees as a dead-end life in rural Tennessee.

What it’s about: In some ways, Jawline is following a very old formula — the story of a young person who dreams of making it big. But Austyn Tester isn’t packing his things and heading for Nashville or Hollywood. Instead, he sits in his house with his phone’s camera aimed at him as he lip-syncs to One Direction songs and tells the girls who log onto his YouNow livestream to chase their dreams.

Incredibly, it works, and Austyn is swept into a world of social media stars that at times feels like a parallel universe, at least if you’re over 25 or so. (Director Liza Mandelup started filming Austyn before he found success, so we’re there to witness the whole wild ride.) It also means he comes into contact with people who want to make their fortune off the teenaged boys and their screaming, adoring fans by managing them.

Like Michael Weist, for instance, a very young agent who manages a stable of social media stars and treats them more than a little like livestock, yelling at them, controlling their lives, and coldly discussing their potential. Michael, who lives in a swanky house in LA, buys luxury goods, and runs a thriving business, couldn’t be more different from Austyn. But thanks to YouNow, they’re in the same world.

It all feels like something lifted from dystopian YA fiction, but it’s very real, and Mandelup captures it all without resorting to ironic detachment or sneering judgement. That’s especially important when it comes to the teenaged girls who are fans, and who tell the camera about why they love their favorite YouNow stars. More than one says she was suicidal until she found her favorite broadcaster, whose encouragement to be positive, directed at whoever happened to be logged into his stream at the time, changed her feelings about herself.

Jawline is both disturbing and empathetic, and an important peek into the glory and angst of being a teenager on the internet today. And if you’ve never heard of livestreaming or known the name of a social media star, then it’s an absolutely vital glimpse of a world that’s slowly taking over.

Critical reception: Jawline currently has a Metacritic score of 71 out of 100. At The Verge, Adi Robertson writes that “Jawline explores what’s unique about social media stardom without overemphasizing its novelty, so the film works as a dissection of modern digital celebrity, but also a classic story about beautiful young people struggling to get famous.”

How to watch it: Jawline begins streaming on Hulu on August 23.