If words like YouNow, Tanacon, Mikey Barone, or Musical.ly do not ring a bell, Hulu’s latest documentary offering, Jawline, will likely make you feel very, very old. But it will also make you glad you are no longer in high school.
The film tracks the distinct breed of teen boy influencer who gains fame, particularly amongst the tween girl set, through livestreaming and niche platforms like Musical.ly (now called TikTok). In this post-YouTube era, these influencers need not have any marketable skills or preternatural talent to become stars. But they do all seem to fit a similar physical mold—pretty faces, toned but lithe physiques, gravity-defying coifs, and, as the title of the doc suggests, a chiseled jawline. And they all trade, like Beatlemania, in hysterical teenage girl lust.
Austyn Tester, a wide-eyed 16-year-old from rural Tennessee who wants, more than anything, to be famous, is the film’s central subject. He has a fledgling following on the broadcast platform YouNow, and he checks off all the aforementioned physical boxes. Tester also has an irresistibly cheery demeanor and a twangy accent that oozes earnestness as he tells his viewers, “Don’t let anybody’s opinions keep you from chasing your dreams, okay? If you have a dream, you gotta protect it and chase it, y’all.”
When we meet Tester, he is posing in front of a brick wall in a jean jacket and purple T-shirt, doing his best smolder for a friend diligently trying to capture the perfect Instagram shot. Every few seconds, he stops to look at the pictures and make adjustments (“No, bro, that’s too close”). Eventually, unsatisfied with the results, he gives up and both teens set off through their blue-collar hometown of Kingsport, all power lines and train tracks and beat-up cars.
Jawline is, on its surface, a visual delight. There are ample sun-soaked slow-motion shots of its young subjects taking selfies or lying in the grass. Darker scenes show the teens’ young, expectant faces illuminated by glow of their iPhones. In one sequence, the camera dwells on the relics of a girl’s bedroom—a Polaroid camera, floral bedspreads, high-top Converse sneakers. The universe of the film is a pastel-tinted smartphone fairyland.
Liza Mandelup, who directed Jawline, contrasts Tester’s world—eating cheeseburgers at the local fast-food joint, sharing a bed with his brother, and celebrating his $46 monthly earnings from YouNow—with the Tinseltown glitz of 21-year-old talent manager Michael Weist and his roster of influencers. Weist’s clients, specifically Mikey Barone and Bryce Hall, have achieved the social-media-famous heartthrob status that Tester so desires. They land lucrative partnerships with brands like Old Navy and are confronted by weeping fans outside of the Chanel store in Los Angeles.
To a soundtrack of dreamy, Skins-esque synthesizers, Mandelup juxtaposes scenes of Weist and his posse storming Rodeo Drive for a luxury spending spree with scenes of Tester and his older brother sunbathing by a lake and wistfully daydreaming about leaving Kingsport. Fast-talking, Juul-toting Weist unironically declares, “I never get a vacation, so my vacation is going to Rodeo.” Thoughtful detail shots of discarded bottles of Ciroc in the influencer mansion and Christmas lights intertwined with cobwebs in the Tester household underline the tale of two cities theme. The result is unexpectedly moving.
Jawline works so well because Mandelup takes seriously the Valencia-filtered teenage realm that it is so tempting to dismiss as frivolous and vain. Even our hero’s toothache-inducing optimism that he will one day be a star is played as entirely serious. Though Tester’s musings sometimes feel like satire straight from the Saturday Night Live writers’ room (“If I go live every single day, if I make Musical.lys every single day, if I post Instagram pictures every day being consistent, I’m guaranteed fame”), the intensity in his green eyes tells us not to laugh. It makes for much higher emotional stakes when Tester seems to get his big break, only to be let down again.
Mandelup applies the same sympathetic lens to her female subjects—girls who painstakingly made Magic Marker posters, applied lip gloss, and traveled for hours to gawk at the boys on tour. In between “likes” and “ums,” they tell the camera about how their internet friends are nicer than their friends at school and social media is an escape from being bullied. More than one of the girls describe twin influencers Julian and Jovani Jara as “like family.”
“These girls out here,” Weist explains from the safe respite of a tour bus, outside of which girls are screaming and waving posters, “When you think of them, do you think they’re the captain of the cheerleading team? Do you think they’re the richest girl in town? No. A lot of these people are looking for a way to have support.”
At times, Jawline might threaten to alienate viewers over the age of 18. The film never bothers to introduce its stars, provide follower counts, or explain what platforms like YouNow and Musical.ly are. Never do subjects mention how much money they earn or how the actual business of being an influencer works. But the foreignness of the subject matter is precisely what makes it so interesting to watch. Jawline acts almost as an anthropological study of Gen Z culture. Mandelup’s film fits perfectly into the canon of mostly excellent recent films and television shows devoted to a similar undertaking, in good company with Eighth Grade, Booksmart, and Euphoria.
Jawline premieres on Hulu on Friday, Aug. 23.