Liza Mandelup’s debut documentary feature, “Jawline,” opens with a photo shoot. Aspiring digital heartthrob Austyn Tester, a good-natured teen from rural Tennessee, asks his brother, Donovan, to take his picture with his smartphone. None of the many, many shots are good enough. They eventually give up, planning to try again later for perfection. The thing is, nothing is ever quite good enough — or enough, period — for Austyn, 16, in his quest for online fame.
“Jawline” provides an evenhanded examination of celebrity and loneliness in the digital age. At its best, the movie, a jury prize winner at this year’s Sundance, offers empathetic understanding of all the lonely adolescents aching to be both heard and understood.
Mandelup is most interested in exploring the ways these live broadcasters create a sense of community. Crucially, she talks to the devoted young girls who respond to the nonstop messages of positivity. Their yearning for connection gives “Jawline” its beating heart.
“Storms don’t last forever,” Austyn tells his small band of followers during a live stream. Nor does notoriety in the digital age. The reality of that short shelf life is driven home in “Jawline” by social media talent manager Michael Weist, who lives in a Los Angeles McMansion with a handful of young broadcasters. To call them prodigies would be stretching the definition of the word beyond recognition, as their only discernible talents are posing for pictures, doing handstands and shooting silly string into crowds.
Weist’s job seems to consist of badgering his charges to post more videos and herding them from one meet-and-greet to the next. “Talent is always replaceable,” he sniffs when the boys — not much younger than him — get out of line, i.e. act their age.
This is the dream to which Austyn aspires. “You’re either a settler or adventurer,” he says, and he wants to move to Los Angeles, a place, he says, “where dreams come true.” Mandelup charts this innocent’s journey, illustrating its emotional toll, though in toggling between Austyn’s striving and Weist’s “success,” the movie fails to explain the scope and economics of the industry.
The narrow focus does throw Austyn’s fantasies — and those of the girls who follow him — into sharp relief. The film’s most poignant scene shows Austyn meeting about 10 fans at the local mall. One girl, visibly shaking, tells him she drove two hours — and waited another three — to see him. “He values a woman for what she is,” another says.
But when one girl asks if he’ll hang out with her the next day, Austyn doesn’t know how to respond. “Do you even know my name?” she asks. It’s not the only time in “Jawline” when Austyn discovers that the real world is a complicated place, particularly for a 16-year-old boy who’s never ventured outside his little town.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Playhouse Pasadena; streaming on Hulu