[Review] ‘JAWLINE’ a hypnotic doc about building an audience (and success) on fake smiles and positivity

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

JAWLINE

Not rated, 99 minutes.
Director: Liza Mandelup
Cast: Austyn Tester, Donovan Tester, Michael Weist, Mikey Barone, Julian Jara and Jovani Jara

You’ve probably heard some variation of the expression, “15 minutes of fame,” which was inspired by the words of artist Andy Warhol. The man who gave us 32 paintings of Campbell’s soup cans wasn’t wrong. But achieving celebrity in today’s society is equivalent to making a million dollars. It’s easy to do, but trying to make last. The advent of Instagram and YouTube and other social media platforms have made it that much easier for self-promotion and building a following. The endgame is that it will bring fame, fortune, and fulfillment to the personalities selling themselves.

Take 16-year-old Austyn Tester. When he’s introduced, he’s having some headshots and profile photos taken – not by a photographer with a professional camera, but by his friend with a cellphone. Austyn wants to escape his hometown of Kingsport, Tenn., a community whose best days look to be in the rearview. He remains upbeat and takes to live-broadcasting inspirational messages encouraging others like him to believe in themselves and chase dreams.

Is Austyn famous? Not at this moment. The aspiring social media star (and many like him) plans to be famous, but his credulity besieges his sincerity. Doing live-streams and promoting positivity under a halo of golden-hair bangs and an incandescent smile only pushes the needle so far in attracting an audience – an audience mostly populated by shy teenage girls who venture to the virtual world as an outlet to escape their own daily struggles.

Liza Madelup’s documentary JAWLINE turns off the filters in following Austyn achieving his 15 minutes. By the time it finishes, he will have met some adoring fans at a mall food court, taken a million selfies, and boarded a plane for the first time to join a tour involving other celebs like him. Whether this equals success is relative to the individual. For comparison, Madelup gives us Michael Weist, a 21-year-old manger in a large L.A. mansion with his current talent roster, sitting hunched over his laptop checking Instagram and YouTube, seeing how well his stars are trending. Filming branded content for Old Navy and other retailers, Michael talks fast and isn’t afraid to raise his voice to prove a point. His location affords him a small production team to push content, something Austyn could never achieve alone in Kingsport. 
 
The thing about the level of stardom that comes from being a social media trendsetter is that talent is optional. Michael promotes the twins Julian and Jovani Jara. They don’t sing or play instruments. Their good looks have made them into demi-celebrities. Girls come up to them out of the blue during a shopping excursion on Rodeo Drive. When they do tour stops attended by hundreds – mostly young girls – all that is required of them is to yell into a microphone, shoot silly string, and take pictures. Maybe do a backflip, if they’re up to it. You want to laugh as the scene plays out, then you remember how easy it is to become enraptured by pop stars, actors, and mass media in general.

Mandelup’s documentary carries an ethereal quality in peddling aspirations and beauty in achieving fame. She shows the carefree nature of today’s youth in living in the moment, and in wanting to highlight any milestone (“Hey, this is what I had for lunch!”). She also shows what Austyn’s fans can’t see: kittens scurrying around his feet, dirty clothes piled higher than an anthill, and a cramped bed mattress that sleeps him and another sibling. With the right angle and lighting, he can cover up the faults of his old home and make it appear rustic chic. Because if you are peddling positivity, what’s the harm in leaving out a few details?
 
As JAWLINE bites into something sour, Austyn’s smile loses shape. We think we are witnessing his rise until Mandelup makes a gentle change in the third act and we wander (not wonder) with Austyn and what’s next. He adheres to the ideology of faking it until you make it – be it himself or the thousands he inspires through chat windows and webcams – and that includes smiles. Whereas Michael Weist blusters to his talent to smile as if their lives depended on it. OK, maybe not that severe. Though sometimes I get the impression Michael is part mogul, part whoremonger – someone who will cut his losses quickly and find another young man with a magnificent mandible. Talent not required.          

Such is the life of a demi-celebrity. One minute a selfie gets you a few likes. Five minutes later, you become intoxicated by the rush in obtaining new followers, viewers, and even more likes. Ten minutes and a talent scout sees potential in peddling smiles and positivity. Now it’s fifteen minutes. Goodbye, fame. Andy Warhol posited. Liza Madelup shows its verity.      

Grade: B+

JAWLINE is now playing in select theaters and is available to stream on Hulu.

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