Liza Mandelup can’t resist going down rabbit holes. Her feature debut, the mesmerizing Hulu documentary Jawline, is the result of a four-year dive into the Generation Z world of teenage “live broadcasters,” handsome young social media personalities and influencers who do live-streamed—and often monetized—sessions with their largely tween and teen female fans, whom they also encounter face-to-face at lucrative conventions and meet-and-greets.
The filmmaker focuses on two key subjects: Austyn Tester, a handsome, upbeat, yet naive Tennessee teenager growing up in poverty who sees an opportunity to rise above his circumstances by becoming an online celebrity, and Michael Weist, a savvy, gay, Los Angeles–based 21-year-old manager of social media personalities, including out YouTuber Jackson Krecioch, gay Instagrammer Tyler Brown, and transgender Instagrammer Justin Blake.
Austyn Tester in Jawline.
Over the course of her engrossing documentary, which is laced with pastel-tinged imagery and Dutch composer Palmbomen II’s ethereal synthesizers, Mandelup exposes the good and bad of what Weist describes as a “gold rush,” and what lurks behind the pretty-boy smiles and computer screens.
Mandelup spoke with NewNowNext about the movie, the controversial figure of Weist (whose company, Good Times Entertainment, dissolved after he mounted a financially calamitous convention), and the online rabbit hole she feels is best avoided.
Did you always have Austyn in mind as the documentary’s protagonist?
Actually, I didn’t know who I would film when I started. I just knew I wanted it to take place in the world of live broadcasters. My process in general is I imagine characters and get inspired by a world or setting. So it started with me wanting to tell a story of the modern teen.
Austyn has a compelling story involving poverty, a violent and abusive father, and a brother and mother who really believe in him. Is that what made him stand out from the pack?
Austyn was different. We connected in a way I didn’t with the other talent. I really cared about him and really wanted this to work out for him, and I fell in love with his family. What I found in that family was someone I wanted to get behind. I also felt he would take me to interesting places because of how wide-eyed he was, and I knew from the other side [of the industry] things would be different than he thought.
You spend a bit of time with these boys’ female fans. Were there also encounters with gay male fans that didn’t make the cut?
Oh, they show up for sure, but I think these personalities are leaning into something that girls like. They’re catering to the girls, but I saw more of the gay boys on the other side [as the live broadcasters]. In the film you can’t really tell, but in Michael's social media house there were several trans boys and a whole spectrum of identities. I felt I was with the modern teen, with nobody batting an eyelash, so there was a lot of the queer community around. In that world they’re so fluid.
During one scene they’re basically like puppies on a couch, one playing with the other’s hair.
I was impressed by that house. Michael really hung out with those boys, as opposed to the older managers who didn’t do that—they would just check in. It’s more like Michael is friends with them. They would get lunch together. But there’s drama. I stayed very close to Michael in the process. I understand his perspective. And I think he likes being around beautiful guys. I get that sense.
Michael Weist in Jawline.
So presumably, none of the boys are put off by Michael being so openly gay?
No, it’s a very queer and queer-friendly world. It was a positive if anything.
Did any gay influencers try to get you to feature them in the documentary as well?
James Charles was around a lot when filming, because Michael might have been doing something [with him]. But I got the feeling a lot of the boys were fluid. I never felt I wasn’t including that type of boy. I felt I was around it a lot. Not in Austyn’s world, but in Michael’s.
Michael says the thing that makes him happiest about this work is the effect it has on his bank account, and he stirs up drama both on screen and off, which a Google search will certainly reveal. Is he a bit of a villain?
I never thought he was a villain. I think people think he’s a villain. It’s not something I set up—like, "Here’s Michael the villain." I was just like, "Here is Michael, end of sentence." He’s the "other side," and I think people have interpreted it like that, but I was impressed by him. He knows his persona and has this business mind-set, and is in the industry and confident and feels he has cornered a market. I definitely don’t encounter someone like him on a daily basis! The thing about Michael is, he is really young and sweet, too. He’s shark-y, but I never felt he was malicious. He’s just very cutthroat and very proud of who he is. He doesn’t hide who he is, and I love people like that. He’s complex.
Is this whole movement of influencers healthy? Jawline seems to suggest both yes and no, with many fans turning to these online personalities because the boys in their schools and immediate social circles either ignore or are mean to them.
I’m on both sides. People go [online] to find a community because they feel rejected in life and suicidal. There’s no way that can be a negative thing, but being out of touch with reality and losing touch with real-life friends, that’s not very good.
Do you see yourself doing a follow-up film?
I’m tempted to every day. But I think I can’t. Telling stories that involve people’s relationships to tech, the possibilities are infinite. How we think as humans and how that is being shaped on a daily basis by our devices is a launchpad for so many stories. That’s how I can stay in projects so long—part of it is a personal curiosity and part of it is that it's something I need answers to. What would I be like as a teen today? Those years were so intense for me.
What’s the latest with Austyn? He seems to be mostly silent on YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram.
Put yourself in that situation. You’re 16 and come face-to-face with the fact that you can fail and it won’t work out. It’s hard coming from his circumstances—it’s really challenging to get yourself out of his situation. His manager putting him down—it felt like what happened with his manager might have been similar to what happened with his dad. Even now he wants to try and help people and find realistic ways to do that. But he seems to feel it didn’t work out.
Austyn Tester in Jawline.
In researching Jawline did you discover any oddball personalities or unusual sub-communities that you also became obsessed with?
Of course. I engage in many rabbit holes. I most recently discovered #eboy, which someone at a film festival showed me. It looks like a lot of the boys in the film, and I became obsessed with that hashtag. It’s almost like the world is growing even more. Also, #egirls. It’s pretty good. There’s also a woman who live-broadcasted with her face as a young girl, Your Highness Qiao Biluo. She had a filter that made her look young, and it glitched, and she’s a 45-year-old woman but didn’t realize the filter went off, and her fans were shocked. What a tale of modern drama. Let’s open a film with that scene! I keep finding things online where I think it’s a great scene for a movie.
How about pimple popping? I recently learned of many Instagram accounts dedicated to that, and they are foul!
Pimple popping is not my recommendation. I feel like I literally have an entire Google doc of things I find interesting, but I don’t want to give away my next project. I have to be shady about that.
Jawline premieres August 23 on Hulu.