Filmmaker Liza Mandelup knew she wanted to make a film about teenagers and falling in love.
The Los Angeles resident decided to follow the teenage girls. That’s where she discovered a world of rising social media stars — cute, fresh-faced boys in their high school years, talking into their cellphone cameras and grooming online personas that bring crowds of adoring girls, weak-kneed, screaming and phones held high, to arenas and venues.
Mandelup made the documentary Jawline about one of these charismatic teenage boys, and tapped into the power of social media, teen girl lust and the money the fangirls spend to meet their online crush. The documentary, which won a special jury prize at Sundance Film Festival this year, will screen at Thin Line, a five-day documentary film, music and photography festival opening in Denton on Wednesday.
“I started with the idea, and the world I wanted to start with,” Mandelup said. “I knew I wanted to be in this world of a teenager, and falling in love with technology as a backdrop. So I found out about these meet-and-greets, where girls pay to meet their online crushes.”
Mandelup spent a year filming when she met a rising social media star, a 16-year-old named Austyn Tester.
The filmmaker and her subject met in Houston, where Tester was hoping to parlay his rising Instagram profile into a particular kind of celebrity — one that could lead him out of his hometown, Kingsport, Tennessee, to Los Angeles.
“Someone came across Austyn online, and he was just getting started,” Mandelup said. “So we met him, and I could tell there was a story there. When you do documentary film, it’s pretty instinctive.”
A sympathetic figure
Tester makes for a sympathetic figure. He’s had a tough upbringing with a loving, hardworking and slightly harangued single mom, and an older brother, Donovan, who’s always got Austyn’s back. The brothers mention their absent dad, out of the picture thanks to drug addiction.
But Tester’s got dreams, an unshakable positive outlook on life and a charisma that seems beyond his years. Mandelup captures the teen in his carefully created DIY studio — a corner of his small house where the light amplifies his natural, telegenic good looks and the camera captures his ambition, which is tempered with an aw-shucks sort of kindness. His audience? Teen girls who flock to his Instagram page and click the “like” button (which shows up as a cherry red heart on the popular platform). The real prize for a fan? Getting Tester to say her name while he’s livestreaming or bringing her on as a guest.
Mandelup said there was more to Tester than his look. The title of the film, Jawline, refers to female teenage lust — the girls who flocked to the meet-and-greet had a laundry-list of qualities they appreciate in their social media idols, but that emerging, strong jawline had universal appeal.
“I think it represents the moment really well,” Mandelup said. “This is the look that allows you to enter this world, and it represents the beginning of teen lust. All these guys, they all have a look. And the way you get into the world is to have this really Instagram-able face.”
No celebrity without fans
The boys wouldn’t have their celebrity without their fans. In fact, Jawline grew out of a short film, Fangirl, about the teenage girls who show up at the meet-and-greets.
“There’s a lot of teenage girl desire in the film,” Mandelup said. “All these girls were talking about what they wanted from these boys. When you ask them what it is they want from these guys, they’re like, ‘We just want them to spend time with us.’ The guys make them feel special. I started to wonder, ‘What if I could make a documentary that gave you the most intimate access to the boy you’re longing for?’ It’s almost a teenage diary.”
Mandelup captures Tester livestreaming and chatting with his fans, dealing compliments fast and furiously. When the time comes to sign off, Tester tells his fans and followers to stay positive and to never be discouraged from chasing their dreams. She follows Tester to a DIY meetup at a nearby mall, where a dozen girls show up to take pictures, get a hug and even take a trip through a couple of stores.
“The stakes were high for Austyn,” she said. “We were looking for the story we wanted to tell. Getting access is actually quite difficult in this world. These are people who are making their own content, and people want something from them. So access isn’t a guarantee. That process took time. But when I met Austyn, I saw that he had this dream. He wanted to get out of his hometown, and this was his way out.”
Mandelup weighs Tester’s journey against those of teen heartthrobs who have already made it — social media celebrities Bryce Hall and Mikey Barone and twins Julian and Jovani Jara, known as 99 GoonSquad on social media. Jawline is an intriguing study of 21st century adolescence. Middle-aged folks aren’t new to the sway celebrity can have over teens, from footage of girls screaming over the Beatles to the throngs of girls in a frenzy over One Direction and Justin Bieber.
Playing to its audience
The absence of adults in Jawline is jarring. Twenty-something talent manager Michael Weist, born to be a dealmaker, looks as baby-faced as his clients Hall and Barone. (Just in his early 20s, Weist has already been at the center of a disastrous YouTube convention.) Tester’s mother is present, but otherwise, the documentary belongs to middle and high school crowd.
“Some of the girls were brought to the shows by the adults,” Mandelup said. “But they didn’t know why they were there. It wasn’t like we consciously cut out the adults. It’s an economy that is really run and made by teenagers.”
Mandelup said teens have always dreamed of leaving their hometown and following big dreams. Tester is no different. The rise of social media has made celebrity more possible, even for teens who don’t have a typical talent. Social media celebrities don’t have to be musicians or actors to win the adulation of fans.
They have to perform, however. Tester isn’t pretending to care about his fans, but he carefully projects his positivity and plays to his followers’ desires.
Mandelup said as she shot footage, she found that this burgeoning market rests partially on the insecurity of teenage girls who follow the young social media celebs.
“The reason these girls feel that way is because the only commodity they have is love,” she said. “And instead of, ‘You like me because I’m a musician,’ it’s, ‘You like me because I like you.’ The boys learn quickly that they have to appeal to that. They know, ‘I need to tell them they are beautiful, I need to be with them and hug them.’ They know they need to sell the feeling that the girls are really getting to know you. I think these boys sell this to a lot of these girls. They livestream, and they show, ‘This is me with my friends, this is me before I go to bed at night.’ They’ve learned how to extract that without a talent.”
In return, the girls feel seen and heard.
“The girls, when we talked to them, they don’t feel heard at school. They want to be heard, and these boys make them feel heard. The boys listen to them.”
Through thick and thin
Mandelup stuck with Tester through good times and bad. She shows him learning the tour ropes with the Jara twins. And she sticks with him as he faces the consequences of big decisions — Tester decides to drop out of school to develop his career, then discovers getting back into the classroom isn’t simple. Tester also learned that fans expect a lot of livestreams, photos and videos — and disappear if a creator doesn’t keep up the pace. Anxiety crops up, and Tester has to roll with the bruising punch of dashed hopes.
“He made a big mess — the film ends with him going back into reality,” she said. “And then he had to face the reality of what happens when it doesn’t work out. I often wonder what happens to the people who go away. I chose someone I thought might rise into stardom. I thought it was a rising-star film. When the story turned, I fell in love with the film more. Dreams are what drive you. They don’t always come true, but do you stop dreaming? I don’t think so. Austyn didn’t stop dreaming.”