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How the director of Jawline found her way into the self-contained world of teen livestreamers

In the social media star ecosystem, positivity culture reigns and fangirls flourish.

Jawline subject Austyn Tester with a crowd of fans.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In some ways, the new documentary Jawline is built atop a very old formula — the story of a young person who dreams of making it big. But it’s not about young people packing their things and heading for the bright lights of New York or Los Angeles.

Instead, director Liza Mandelup dove into a strange alternate universe to make the film, in which teenage boys become stars — almost exclusively to teenage girls — by using their smartphones to harness the power of streaming platforms by spreading “positivity” to their fans, then going on tour to connect with them. Jawline explores the culture that’s developed around these self-made stars, with a focus on 16-year-old Austyn Tester, who lives what he sees as a dead-end life in rural Tennessee.

Seeking celebrity, Austyn sits in his house, positioned in front of his phone’s camera as he lip-syncs to One Direction songs and tells the girls who log onto his YouNow livestream to chase their dreams. The teenage girls who follow him profess in the film that they have found a lifeline in their favorite star, sometimes amid deep depression or suicidal thoughts.

Incredibly, his efforts pay off, and Austyn enters a world of social media stars that at times feels like a parallel universe, at least if you’re over 25 or so. Broadcasting his message of positivity is how Austyn spends his days, until he is swept into a publicity cycle dominated by events held at mall food courts or hotel convention centers, events that give screaming, adoring fans a chance to meet their favorites.

But Austyn’s newfound fame also means he comes into contact with people who want to make their fortune off stars like him, and their fans. Michael Weist, for instance, is a very young agent — a teenager himself — who manages a stable of young social media personalities. He 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 part of the same world, one that runs on a self-contained economy: Teens, managed by teens, creating content and staging events for their teenage fans, without many adults having any idea it’s even happening.

It all feels like a scenario lifted from dystopian YA fiction, but it’s very real, and Mandelup captures it without resorting to ironic detachment or sneering judgement. I recently spoke to the director by phone about the film, the challenges of making a movie that isn’t judgmental, and what Austyn is up to today.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Alissa Wilkinson

How did you find Austyn? And, maybe more importantly: What it’s like to film someone who’s also always filming himself?

Liza Mandelup

I knew I wanted to make a film that took place in the world of live broadcasting, and I think that when I started, I realized I had to focus on one specific person. It took me a while to figure out who that voice was going to be.

We filmed for about a year before we found Austyn. I was putting out feelers, explaining to people that I wanted to find a character who I could film from the moment that they thought of going live and giving up everything that they were doing to become a live broadcasting star. I wanted to be with someone before they were famous, and that proved really hard to find.

Someone had randomly found [Austyn] on YouNow and he didn’t have a lot of followers, but he had a great personality. I met him and I was like, well, this guy could be great. But it definitely felt like a big gamble, because he was still pretty far from the industry when we had met him. We didn’t know what direction the story was going to take — if it was going to be a rise-to-fame story, or a story of someone who can’t even break in, but is trying.

In terms of filming someone who’s filming themselves: I kind of loved this. I know that sounds strange. But I loved it, because I felt like he was never like, “Oh whoa, cameras in a room.” It felt very natural for us to be [at Austyn’s house] filming all the time. I think that helped us in a lot of situations. In a lot of documentary situations, people feel uncomfortable with filming, and it takes time to warm them up. But with Austyn, the second we started filming, we were getting scenes that could go into the film. Literally the very first scene we ever filmed with him is in the film. I never felt like he needed any warming up period.

Austyn Tester takes a shirtless selfie in the documentary Jawline.
Jawline subject Austyn Tester.

Alissa Wilkinson

Did you feel like you had a particular perspective to add to what Austyn and others were doing?

Liza Mandelup

I honestly felt like a true outsider. I always felt like I had an outsider perspective on what was going on.

I remember feeling like, okay, there’s this market here that is capitalizing on teenage girls with vulnerabilities, and it’s using these young boys to be these positive figures in their life. I always felt like I was seeing it from this outside perspective. I could see a bigger picture. I think that that’s not always the case in documentary. I’ve definitely been in situations where I’m filming, but I don’t know exactly what the perspective is. Or something would take time to figure out.

But I saw what was happening here. I went to a meet and greet [between streaming stars and their fans], and was like, “There’s something bizarre happening here that I feel like people aren’t talking about outside of the people in their own communities.”

I felt like I needed to figure out a way to explain to other people what I was seeing. So every time we were filming, I was like, “Okay, how can I translate this?”

Alissa Wilkinson

One thing that’s evident in Jawline is how close you and the crew were to Austyn’s family, including his brother. They talk to you quite frankly throughout. What were your interactions like when the cameras weren’t rolling?

Liza Mandelup

I didn’t shoot the film, so I was able to have a more intimate connection with Austyn because of that. I was this role that was like, I’m not your friend, but I’m not your mom. I’m older than you, but I’m not so much older than you.

I always was very real with him. We became friends. That’s one of the things I love about documentary — in what world would I ever hang out with a 16-year-old kid for so long? But I did, and I became close with him and his family, and I knew all the minutiae of what was going on in his life. He would constantly ask me for advice, and I was always there to give it to him. I was always there to talk on the phone with him. We genuinely just became close, like family members.

My crew and I tried to keep that same energy, to get to know everybody we were filming. We didn’t want them to feel like we were on a job, but that we were just people they were hanging out with.

That’s why it took me a while to find the right [subject for the film], because I needed to genuinely feel like I cared about this person, and like I wanted them to succeed, and I was going to be spending a lot of time with them. I wanted it to translate on camera that this was someone I cared about.

2019 Sundance Film Festival - “Jawline” Premiere
Mandelup (third from left) with Jawline subjects Jovani Jara, Julian Jara, Michael Weist, Donavan Tester and Austyn Tester at the film’s Sundance premiere.
Cassidy Sparrow/Getty Images

Alissa Wilkinson

There’s also this other side to the film, with Michael, a teenager himself and a manager to all of these streaming stars. How did you end up shooting with him?

Liza Mandelup

I always wanted the film to be both a manager and one of the live broadcasters. So I had an eye out to find a manager to film with. We met Michael pretty early on. He brought to the table the sense that it was an economy of teenagers serving other teenagers — the whole thing was all so contained, a market for teens. I met Michael randomly, and he actually asked us what we were doing, and then we started talking. And I was like, this kid is amazing; can we film with you next?

In the film, he says, “They want a manager that’s their age that they can be friends with and they can know, that understands their generation.” Michael is that, but mixed with the sensibility of an older businessman. I always felt like he was the young Steve Jobs of the social media world.

Alissa Wilkinson

There’s tension in the film between the “positivity” culture that Austyn and some of the other stars are trying to promote, and matter-of-fact cynicism on the business side. It keeps swinging back and forth between those things. I imagine that’s something you were experiencing yourself.

Liza Mandelup

Some of those things were crafted [while we were editing]. But I was in a weird world while shooting, and I wanted it to be clear in the film: This bizarre thing is happening right now, and I want it to sound like it’s bizarre. I want it to feel like it’s bizarre. That’s something you can craft through the edit.

But yeah, when we were filming, we were going between who they were as broadcasters and who they were in their real life. So you get a snippet of their performing side, and then who they are when they stop going live.

I was always interested in that moment, because I wanted to give the fangirls the best access of their lives to some of these boys. I always kind of felt like, “If I was a fangirl, what would I want to see?”

I interviewed so many girls, so I knew what they wanted. But I would remind myself that they just want to know who these boys really are. They want to know what they do when the fans don’t have access to them.

Alissa Wilkinson

As a former teenage girl, I found the fangirls both totally understandable and really foreign. Things like fan clubs and magazines have existed for ages. But the internet gives you a whole different kind of access to the stars you adore, and in this film the relationship between the fans and the stars is almost hard to fathom if you didn’t grow up online. How did talking to the girls shift your own perspective?

Liza Mandelup

I have a question for you. You said you related to the girls?

Alissa Wilkinson

Emotionally, I did. I could imagine myself having been in that place, even though I didn’t grow up with any of this.

Liza Mandelup

Yeah. I was always trying to understand: Why are you here? Why did you show up to this event? Why did drive six hours? Why did you pay $200? Why are you here? That was a window into understanding why this phenomenon is happening.

The answers were a lot of, “I was bullied and they made me feel good,” or “I was cutting myself and then I stopped when I started listening to them. I was suicidal and then I realized that following Austyn made life worth living.” Those answers made me feel like there’s a couple things there. I experienced some of those feelings when I was a teenage girl. They’re not new problems.

But it feels like we’re living in heightened times of anxiety. For them, it’s like, “My life feels very anxious, and I feel very out of control with a lot of things. But then I come to my online life, and I love my life there, and I have a great community.” So these girls start to separate their worlds: They have their real-life self and their online self, and they like their online life a lot more. They like their online community a lot more, so they just want to stay in that world. That means following the boys, going to their shows, maybe even being homeschooled so you can be online more. All of those things.

Austyn Tester smiles at the camera in Jawline.
Austyn Tester in Jawline.

Alissa Wilkinson

That all sounds harmful, maybe even dystopian, to someone who’s a little older. But then, it might be helpful to some. I feel like I’d have a hard time making a film like this without being judgmental, but you pulled it off. Was that difficult?

Liza Mandelup

If I’m making a film about something, I’m entering the situation thinking: Who is the person? How do I understand this? Why are their actions, their actions? Judgment happens when you don’t do that. Judgment is like, “I don’t care to understand your actions. This is weird.” I don’t think I ever was like, “I’m going to try not to be judgmental.” I was just trying to understand why the boys were, for instance, choosing not to go to high school to be a broadcaster instead. So I thought: Let me try to understand it. Let me put myself in your life long enough to understand your perspective.

Same for the girls. Let me spend time with as many girls as possible to try to understand why they’re going to events and being fans. In the end Jawline came off as judgment-free, because I was genuinely trying to understand them.

Alissa Wilkinson

Near the end of the film, months have passed. Austyn’s follower count has started to drop as he’s no longer the hot new thing on the internet. And you finished filming several years ago. What is he doing now, and how does he think about the experience he had?

Liza Mandelup

I think he’s very thankful for everything with the film, which is awesome, because as a filmmaker, you spend a lot of time editing someone’s story. You hope you center it in a way that they can appreciate. The fact that he is thankful means so much to me.

We went to his hometown to show the film to him for the first time. When he was watching it, it was almost like he was watching home videos of himself as a kid. It was like another moment, another person. It reconfirmed how being 16 is so fleeting. You’re this version of yourself for a short period of time, and then you evolve into a more adult version of yourself.

At that screening, I got to witness him looking back on himself like that. And all of these things, the technology and apps and trends and stuff, they’re just a moment. I thought, Oh yeah, it was just a moment for you.

Jawline premieres on Hulu on August 23.