Austyn Tester isn’t famous yet, but it’s just a matter of time until he is. One of the subjects of Liza Mandleup’s superb documentary Jawline (available on Hulu and in select theaters), the 16-year-old’s sweetness (or naïveté, depending on how you look at it), boy-next-door good looks, and ceaseless energy and positivity have scored him a respectable following on the broadcasting platform YouCast. On his broadcasts, he tells his fans how much he loves them. He talks about spreading positivity and changing the world. He tells girls to love themselves. He is smitten with the ability to talk directly to an audience that adores him. He stares into the camera, beaming, hoping his gargantuan charm and intoxicating smile will take him to the top. His buoyancy, warmth, and ascent up the social media influencer ranks, the documentary shows us, help to distract him from his financial and academic struggles in rural Kingsport, TN. As Mandleup follows Tester on his journey, the director examines class and masculinity and teenage identity. While following seasoned influencer pros 99GoonSquad (a music and comedy duo made up of 17-year-old twins Jovani and Julian Jara) and their manager Michael Weist (a quasi-director whose company Good Times Entertainment recently filed for bankruptcy), Mandleup contrasts Tester’s background, performance, and ethos with that of the industry he seeks to succeed in.
Jawline is a thoughtful and empathetic look at the way we live our lives online. It’s especially kind to those who seek to monetize their digital footprints, and those of us (which is, let’s be real, most of us at this rate) who look for recognition and acknowledgment via social media. GQ spoke with Mandleup to discuss what it’s like to follow so-called content creators, what makes a good documentary subject, modern ideas about masculinity, and if we can really know who we are in a post-social media age.
GQ: I was particularly struck that Jawline isn’t cynical, because a lot of films approach the social media age with a lot of cynicism and nihilism. How did you avoid that?
Liza Mandleup: I think that people who have that perspective of cynicism towards it are isolating themselves from this whole generation. I think that's part of how teenage voices get ignored. So I really tapped into how I felt as a teenager, and how I felt people ignored me and didn't hear me, and how my problems and thoughts weren't important. I wanted to make a film that took them seriously and represented their feelings. I was always asking them about what they're going through and how they're dealing with it, and then to have that relationship with them informs the narrative in a way where you really understand someone. You can't judge them if you expand who they are and how they make their decisions and why they make their decisions. Judgment comes from not understanding people.
Do you think the ways teenagers seek visibility or recognition has changed from when you were a teenager?
Of course, because teenagers today have their real self that they show up as at school every day, and they have their online invented persona, this other version of themselves that represents them but it’s more a version of themselves that they aspire to be like. I didn’t grow up having to create two personas like that. I just dealt with one, and I think that’s the most complex and different thing about this generation because they’re experiencing their life through social media. It’s not just this thing you have that’s an addition to your life, it’s a whole other life. I think that being a developing person in adolescence and developing who you are on an emotional level on these apps makes this a very strange time. Put all that on someone going through high school.
There’s a lot that feels very different to me. But I did relate to them, the age-old things that don’t change. There’s this classic thing about wanting to get out of a dead-end town in hopes of a better life, and that goes back, but it looks different right now.
You’ve said that documentaries are all about casting. Was there a particular moment when you realized these subjects—Austyn, Michael, 99GoonSquad—would be good for the film?
I think that that year that we spent exploring the world of filming with different people helped me to figure out who the right person was, because you are looking for that chemistry on camera, with a person, but also, you have to know what you're looking for in order to talk it out and find it and ask people. I think that I didn't know what I needed to know. I understood the different components: I knew I needed the fan girl voices, I knew I needed the manager, and I knew I needed a main boy. But who am I looking for in those spaces. Do I want someone who is super rich from [social media]? Or do I want someone who is a manager?
Once I got in the world, I was like, “Wait a minute, this is a world that’s run by teenagers, for teenagers. The whole exchange that's happening is happening just among teens, financially and also in terms of what they're all getting out of it.” I was like, obviously everybody needs to be a teenager. Also I think that it was really important—in order to make a film like what you said before, that doesn't have any cynicism to it—that I have characters who are very genuine.We have to have a connection, because we need to be rooting for you. We spoke with a couple of people, and I didn't feel that way about them. When we met Austyn, I just felt like he was so genuine and naive at the same time; [he had] this optimism, and I couldn’t tell if it was realistic or not, and I just I took a bet on him. I was like, I really feel if I follow this person that something is going to happen.
We booked a flight to go to meet him at his home in Tennessee. And once we met his family and saw his house and where he lived, I just felt like there's a cinematic feeling to this whole place. I knew I wanted to make a film that would have a lot of visuals to work with. When I first started it, I was like, how do I make this world of live broadcasting feel cinematic? That was sort of a challenge. I have to rely on my characters to have dreams and fantasies that I can bring to life, but also to have the people they know to be great characters. I felt like rural Tennessee was a stark contrast to the high-tech world he was in. Once we started filming, we realized our gut feelings were right.
Did you ever think that the subjects’ performance in front of the camera as they were being documented was different, like in an “observer effect” way? Or do you think that because they were always documenting or broadcasting themselves all the time that your presence didn’t have a big impact?
I think that [observer effect idea] worked to our advantage. I was like, okay, I’m in this scenario where there’s other cameras in the room. I think that it allowed us to have a very casual nature with our subjects, because they were coming from a world where so much of it was filmed. But I also think that not being taken seriously can work in your advantage. When you're another camera in a place where everybody's got their own channel and is making their own content—and we’re just another camera—we're in a lot of scenarios where they will be like, alright, yeah, sure thing.
People within this world make content that comes out the same week, so they’d be noticing, like, “you guys are working on this thing for a long time.” You go through so many different stages with a thing like this: you get funding and then you get into a festival and then you get distribution. We showed the film to the subjects, and they were blown away.I don’t know what they thought I was making—like, a YouTube video?
Austyn and his brother have this very palpable sense of class anxiety, and his mother has a sort of generational guilt. I was wondering if class and socioeconomic critique were part of your original conceit.
It wasn’t, it never came up in casting. What is obvious is that the world of social media is a world of keeping up with mobility and social status. It’s about how many followers people have, how big they are on social media. You meet someone and hear they have a million followers and you’re like, oh, okay! If you are in that world, you’re obviously looking for something that you don’t have in your life. I think that we actually fell in love with Austyn’s personality first, like someone found broadcasting out of obscurity, and we had no idea of his situation. And then I actually realized how high the stakes were. I actually spent a while struggling with that,t. When you film with someone who is financially struggling... there was a moment in the beginning where I was almost ignoring it, because it was not why I was there. But then I realized how important it was, because it was something that affected Austyn's life.
I think that everybody in that world of live broadcasting is escaping some sort of situation, and so it's a no brainer to me that someone would have some sort of struggle. In Austyn’s case it’s financial, and getting bullied at school. It’s also true that you're a teenager looking to make money. Right? And so you peel back the layers of that, and I'm sure you're gonna find some sort of socioeconomic issue happening. I would always ask myself, like, Why are these people here? I think that part of understanding why a teenager would opt out of being a normal teenager, which is such a beautiful time in your life even if it’s hard, is what I wanted to know. I wanted to ask, What are the issues or the reasons that you opted out of that and chose to drop out of school and live in a house where everybody’s broadcasting and working?
You also have a scene where Michael and Bryce argue about not showing up to work because you don't feel like it, and about doing, like, 45 minutes of work. What was it like capturing people who were struggling to reconcile the fact that their job was ultimately being an influencer?
Michael was like our tour guide to that house, so whoever he was representing at the time was going in the film. I think that it’s definitely difficult. I’m an outsider coming into their world, and they live in a vacuum there. I think there’s a funny dynamic that happens when this person is very famous in his world, but I have no idea who he is. You’re dealing with people on their own timelines and egos, so it’s definitely challenging. Everything changes so fast in this world. I remember feeling like people were rising and falling off so quickly, I was like, what’s going to happen by the time we’re done filming? Things were turning over so quickly, so we’d hope people wouldn’t just leave or fall off before we get everything that we need. That’s what was really weird about that whole scene. When we weren’t with Austyn, I felt like we were getting someone of-the-moment.
This film is also about masculinity and how we present it to a broad audience on the Internet. Austyn and the L.A. influencers have specific but different ideas of masculinity, and the L.A. influencers’ performance of masculinity is “directed” by their manager, Weist, who is a gay man.
In Michael’s house, there’s the entire spectrum of sexuality, and that feels hopeful in the sense of exploring the modern teen. There are also these very straight guys in that scene, and part of them all not considering or caring about who was what or anything was something that made me feel really hopeful. What is really interesting is how the queerer they appear, the more people will follow them. I think that no matter what they were, they would kind of lean into that. I think that it’s definitely also a very specific kind of guy, all the photos they take, it’s one version of masculinity. I remember scrolling through all these accounts and thinking, what were these guys selling? Who is this for? What sexuality are they selling? In Michael’s house, he was curating what they were doing, which is interesting because he’s a gay man curating what teenage girls want.
I have a lot of complicated feelings about the way in which gay and queer men will explore what might be erotic to straight women. You have Todd Haynes directing a really great sex scene in the Mildred Pierce miniseries he did for HBO, you have Pedro Almodovar who directs a lot of really sensual, erotic scenes.
There’s a lot of overlap. I think that’s the marriage they have in the film—where there’d be an image of Mikey and Bryce wearing towels posing together and it’s one of their most popular images—that’s for gay men and straight women. I can’t speak to how much they were aware of it, but I know that Michael was. He understood it.
Michael says that “influencers come and go, but the business stays the same.” Do you agree with that?
I do. It’s harsh to hear a manager say that, because he deals with people in a more human way than most of us, but it’s a moment that they have. Getting famous online in the live broadcasting world is where you can blow up over something arbitrary. Say you get a million followers: people are confused because they think commodity is worth something all across the board, but is it the same in a situation without longevity? Michael is saying that in this day and age, getting that many followers is so easy to do and you can have your moment, but will you be able to stick around? I just keep hearing that it’s this thing that’s going to go away, it’s just a glitch that people have figured out, to get celebrity status without something else backing it. I have seen it happen—one of the boys in the film tells me they were really big while we were filming but not so much anymore.
You released Fangirl—your short documentary about young women and their adoration for social media influencers—in 2016. Did you see a dramatic shift in what social media business and fandom looked like between when you made that film and when you were working on Jawline?
When I started Jawline, live broadcasting was really unique and teens were doing it before anyone else and occupying that space almost exclusively. This was enough in itself to get people excited. I remember while we were filming, Instagram incorporated live broadcasting into their platform, and I thought, oh shit, now it’s about to go mainstream.
Michael refers it [in the film] as a post-Gold Rush in social media—everybody who was in early getting big on social media got in at a time when it wasn’t over-saturated. Cameron Dallas is that guy. Now it’s so over-saturated that even if you try to do it, you’re almost like every single other person trying, and I think Austyn’s story represents that over-saturation, where it’s not enough to just organically do it. You need to be well-calculated and have a plan and some manipulation and someone like Michael in order to rise above every other person. What happens when every single person is a brand? We’re just manipulating the whole world on the Internet. So many people are trying to occupy that space so that it’s almost as hard as getting famous in real life.
The social media age is interesting because we not only “see” ourselves on these platforms, but versions of ourselves. As Jia Tolentino says in her new book, they become refractions of reflections. Do you think it's possible to know who you are in this world anymore?
No. We don’t know if the decisions we’re making are because of how we actually feel in real life, or if there’ being pushed on us through different technologies. These apps are curating how we think. I don’t even understand if human behavior is human behavior anymore, or if we’re just reacting to technology. A lot of what you see in this film is how teenagers are reacting to technology, and it’s created the effect of holy shit, people have created this world and whole new emotions are popping up because of this technology.
What people need to think a lot more about is to stop having their relationship to social media and technology as a casual thing. It entered our lives in a casual way, it can be relaxing, everyone has it, but is the amount of time we spend on it and how much it affects you psychologically and how it changes the decisions you make and how you think and how you feel—is that casual? No. It’s overwhelming, and can change the discourse of your actions. That’s very, very powerful to me.
Originally Appeared on GQ