Published Jan 31, 2019Thanks to the endlessly perplexing, yet unstoppably successful nature of online influencer culture, there have been plenty of documentaries on the subject in recent years. Most of them exist for us to cringe-watch (Chasing Cameron, The American Meme) or sit back in shock at the financing of it all (The People's Republic of Desire). Thanks to the empathetic, non-judgemental lens of director Liza Mandelup, Jawline offers something new — a film that actually humanizes influencers.
The film's titular impressive face structure belongs to Austyn Tester, a dirt-poor teen from Kingsport, TN who dreams of life beyond the walls of the home, where he shares a bed with his older brother and an uncountable litter of kittens. Victims of domestic abuse, the Testers have grown up without a father while their single mom has struggled to make ends meet. Still, Tester is unflappably positive, and his contagious optimism has allowed him to build a modestly impressive following on the streaming app YouNow. As the film progresses, he signs on for a tour and it seems as though he just might make it.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, we meet Michael Weist, a titan of the influencer industry. He started out by building an online following of his own before spinning that off into an empire. He now shares a mansion with a whole team of young boys, all of whom whine about their workload when they're asked to shoot a five-minute YouTube video each day.
This contrast between up-and-comers and those that are over it creates a nice (if familiar) framework for the film, but it wouldn't be the same without Mandelup's fantastic direction. Rather than follow the influencers with cold, standard doc cinematography, the film is packed with stunning imagery, thanks to eye-popping bokeh shots and surreal edits. Add in a dreamy synth score, and it's clear that Mandelup is not afraid to experiment.
Those elements help to highlight just how absurd modern life can be, but it's also clear that Mandelup isn't judging her subjects. Yes, there are times where we laugh at the influencers, but the humour is less about their career path and more about the hypocrisies, contradictions and insecurities that come with adolescence.
The dream-like look of the film, paired with its penchant for experimentation, makes it feel like a combination of American Movie and David Byrne's True Stories. By approaching her subject matter with a deft, artful touch, Mandelup has made a definitive documentary on a truly peculiar topic. (Caviar See)