If you’re an adult, especially a parent or guardian, and you’ve laughed off the power of influencer culture on kids, a new documentary makes a case to listen up.
Usually found on social media apps like YouTube, Facebook or Tik Tok, Influencers are fresh-faced kids known for basically being young, cute, positive and charismatic. The Hulu documentary “Jawline” makes a measured, empathetic case that what’s going on behind the scenes is much darker.
Directed by Liz Mandelup, “Jawline” follows Austyn Tester, a 16-year-old in Kingsport, Tenn., whose marginal popularity on Instagram and the broadcasting service YouNow gives him hope that he’ll be able to escape his downtrodden life, living in a cramped, single-parent home with his brother.
Tester’s walls are lined with fan art from mostly teenage girls, either expressing their love for him or coloring in one of his canned inspirational phrases with which he says on every live broadcast. Taken in context with the news of social media stars taking advantage of their young fans, this could be seen as creepy. But like his fans, Tester seems like a kid in need of a connection with someone other than his brother. He’s just looking in all the wrong places.
With thousands of followers, Tester is seduced by the idea of fame and those with the power to help him attain. He opens for headliners at social media conventions, where other influencers put on concerts that look more like a fan meet and greet than a performance. He gets caught up in what seems like a exploitative scheme by Michael Weist, a young, Lou Pearlman-esque social media manager and the film’s villain.
“Jawline” is as much about Tester’s short-lived shot at fame as it is about the effect of influencers on younger people. The former is a commentary on how a constant rotation of mop-haired teenage boys are being exploited for fame and spit out of the system before they graduate high school. The latter is how their carefully-curated online presence seduces young girls, both in a positive sense, where they avoid committing suicide, and negative, where they’ll cross privacy boundaries to talk with them and meet them.
It approaches both with empathy. It shows how both sides fall for the illusion that they’ll achieve their dreams, cure their depression and find true love, all in a short amount of time. The people pushing those dreams, like Weist, are draconian, money hungry and almost comically evil.
When the movie breaks into multiple slow-motion sequences of girls screaming for social media stars like they’re modern-day Beatles, it doesn’t feel like it’s judging them for their joy. Both parties have had their emotions preyed upon by corporations and fell for the lie.
We see the effect it has on Tester, as he experiences a fleeting brush with fame. It breaks your heart and also gives you pause that maybe exposing children to this unnecessary rollercoaster of emotions isn’t healthy.
”Jawline” is available for streaming on Hulu. — Andrew Gaug | St. Joe Live