“‘I Have My Real-life Self and My Online-Self, Just Like Everybody Else'”: Liza Mandelup on Teenage Social Media Stars and Her Hulu-Premiering Doc, Jawline
“I’m telling you guys,” says 16-year-old Austyn Tester, sitting in a leather computer chair and speaking into his Macbook’s webcam. The otherwise bleak, wood-panelled room he sits in is completely taken over by soft lighting equipment; the camera pans from his perfectly coiffed hair down to his dirty socks and stained carpet. “If you’ve got a dream, you’ve got to chase it. Don’t let anyone’s opinions affect you.”
In director Liza Mandelup’s feature doc debut, Jawline, Austyn speaks to himself as much as he does to the gaggle of teen girls that are watching him live-stream his motivational speech. He desperately wishes to leave his home in rural Tennessee and ascend to social media stardom by doing little else than be a nice, cute boy—which is irresistible for his teenage girl fans, who might pay anywhere from $25 to $280 for a chance to touch his hand or hug him in real life.
Mandelup, who was featured on Filmmaker’s 2017 25 New Faces of Film, follows Tester’s doe-eyed search for fame, the exploitative nature of managers like the recently-bankrupted Michael Weist, and the economy of teenage girls who at their core just want to feel loved. During this four-year-long project, Mandelup fully immersed herself in the world of teen culture, and she often feels comfortable enough to occupy their mindset, frequently speaking as if she is temporarily delving into their most candid thoughts.
While Jawline might come across for some as a dystopian vision of children exchanging currency for intimacy, or cementing the fact that young women are conditioned into wanting to appear desirable for men, Mandelup makes the larger argument that teenagers are frequently given little autonomy as to how their stories are told, and hopes that this film allows us to connect more tenderly with our own teenage selves.
The film, which won the Special Jury Prize for Emerging Filmmaker at Sundance, will be released on Hulu on August 23.
Filmmaker: Your film almost seems as if it’s shot through one big Instagram filter—the perpetually golden light, the near perfect framing. Was this an intentional aesthetic choice, or was your training as a photographer integral to your propensity for lighting and framing?
Mandelup: I definitely am really obsessed with how we light and frame things in a documentary, and I can’t let go of that. I also have a narrative expectation from my documentaries, because I can’t just sit down with a story—I don’t come from a journalism background, I’m an artist. I went to art school, I studied fine art and did experimental films and a lot of other artistic things before coming to documentary. When I have an idea for a project, I often have to think: “Is this going to be a narrative film? Or a series of photos? Or what?” So I think that I’m always approaching documentary from an artistic [point of view] , where I’m always trying to figure out how to create beautiful moments.
Even sometimes when shooting a documentary, sometimes things will just come out looking bad. And honestly, I don’t care how good of a moment it was, if the shot wasn’t aesthetically perfect for the film, I won’t use it. If it doesn’t have the tone I’m trying to portray, it won’t work.
So I approach a lot of my projects by having the aesthetics and the music feeling like a mood and like a whole other world. I think that people think that because it’s a documentary, it shouldn’t have that. The thing that gets me so excited that my mind starts racing is thinking: “What if I could do these narrative ideas that I have in the documentary space?” But I’m not going to lie, it’s really hard. In documentary, a lot of things are working against you.
Filmmaker: The original title of the film was In Real Life. What prompted you to change it to Jawline?
Mandelup: Honestly, I just really loved [Austyn Tester’s] jawline…and his hair, and all these things that represented this teen lust that would never go beyond that. We would be out at an event, and a boy would be walking by, and I’d be like, “That’s a jawline boy. He’s got that look.”
Filmmaker: So, do you think that through your work and research with Jawline that it’s now easy for you to identify teens that are probably broadcasting?
Mandelup: Well, what I kept saying is that the internet has a style. We would be in these towns all over America—we shot this film in 15 states, and you cannot tell—and the globalization of style and aesthetics are insane because of the world that we’re in of social media and live broadcasting. So I would be in a suburb of Texas one week, and in San Fransisco another week, and I would have the same shoot.
Filmmaker: Yeah, and you see that in the film, like when he’s broadcasting one day and encounters a fan from Indonesia. And it goes to show that this internet culture transcends borders because no matter where you are in the world, teenagers are teenagers.
Mandelup: Exactly. It made me think about how it used to be—like, if you were into punk music, you would have to go to punk shows in order to identify with that aesthetic. And you would go to the shows and be influenced by how other people dressed, and things could be underground in that way. And I don’t know if that can exist anymore.
Filmmaker: I feel like there are so many different brands of social media stars—YouTube kids, Instagram “influencers,” Vine/TikTok comedians…why live broadcasting?
Mandelup: I became obsessed specifically with the world of live broadcasting because it simulates the most realistic in-person relationship. And I think that is the most bizarre to me. Like, when we look at Instagram and we see someone that has all of these beautiful photos of themselves, maybe you have a moment of thinking that their life is beautiful or perfect, but then you can come around and say, “I’m just looking at photographs.” You know that isn’t the whole story. But I felt as if live broadcasting felt like this concept of: “You’re living my life with me. I’m giving you my day to day, and the most normal things about my day.” And it simulates intimacy in that way, in which you’re connecting with this person the same way you connect with someone you’re best friends with or in a relationship with, like, “I know what he likes for breakfast. I know what he looks like when he wakes up in the morning. I know who his mom is or what kind of dog that he has and the treats he likes.”
It’s also about giving the most of yourself. It’s so much more extreme than anything else—I remember a character that I was filming told me that he once went live for an entire day! That’s crazy that someone would want that.
Filmmaker: And what was the process of creating the narrative for this film? I know that you didn’t realize who your central character was until a year after filming ended—what were other iterations of your concept for the film?
Mandelup: So, I knew that I needed a main boy character, then I wanted a manager character and I wanted a girl character. What actually got cut from the film is that we had a singular girl character, but we realized that the film was actually about the chorus of girls, and so we changed it to the girls being an ensemble. And that was hard to let go of, but in the end it was better for the film because I had spoken to many girls, and I knew that there was something to be said for the fact that so many girls were going through the same thing, and I wanted that to come across.
I think in terms of finding the main character, there were definitely a couple of false starts with people who we filmed with because the person who is doing the broadcasting is saying, “I’m just a normal, regular teenage boy that is going to go live and we’re going to share experiences together, and you’re going to live my life with me and I’m going to be nicer, more positive and better than anyone you know in your real life.” So I wasn’t sure which would be more interesting, the most normal or the most dynamic [character]. After spending some time in this world, I realized that what I was looking for was someone who was dreaming of this as a career path to get out of their situation—someone who has really high stakes—but also someone that I really felt I was rooting for. And I think that that clicked with Austyn, because he felt so genuine. And he found this thing and didn’t know how it worked, but felt that it could be his lifeline.
Filmmaker: Was your Fangirl short a reconciliation for having to cut the girl character from Jawline?
Mandelup: No, it was the opposite! I started with Fangirl—my initial idea was to make a film about teenage girls. This whole train of thought started by my own reflection on my teenage years, and I wanted to make a film about what it’s like to be a teenage girl today—or a teenager in general—but I was thinking about a girl’s perspective first. So while I was making Fangirl, I interviewed hundreds of girls, mainly through Twitter and Instagram, and I would ask them: “What do you really want? What do you want from being obsessed with these boys?” And they would say, “I just want to really know him. And I want to be normal with him. I want us to have a normal, real relationship.” So I wanted to make a film that would give them that, but also show them what the real thing behind what they think is real is. And that sent me off on this mission to give them the best access to the boys. And I was always thinking about that, like, “What does she want to see?”
Filmmaker: I was thinking about whether Jawline would shatter their illusions or just make them fall more in love—like in the scenes where he would be in bed playing with kittens—it’s almost like, idealized teen fantasy cute. But you also see how the system of live broadcasting spits cute boys like Austyn right out.
Mandelup: Right, but I also really didn’t want the girls to seem delusional. In Fangirl, I think that some people may have watched that and thought, “Oh, these poor girls!” But I wanted to tell the girls exactly what was going on, and I wished at the time that I had footage from shooting Jawline, so I could provide them some insight into what was really happening.
Filmmaker: What I love about both of the films is that they seem to mystify the person on the other side of the screen—Fangirl barely features the social media idols themselves, while Jawline either questions the commerce-heavy relationship between the fangirl and the idol or reduces them to fantasies of a “hot girl” cult that the idols project in order to fulfill their own desires.
Mandelup: I think that they’re both getting something out of it—being a teenager is such a unique time in your life, so I would think, “Why are all of you teens choosing to be here?” In terms of what they were occupying their time with. I’m also super fascinated with life on an emotional level, and I think that a lot of times when I was growing up and watching movies, a lot of films helped me emotionally.
I feel like I’m always trying to make films about how people are dealing with their existence on a psychological level. During the edit, I was thinking about emotions so much. And I’ve never told an editor this, but in my head, I feel like I’m at the doctor—I tell them how I feel, and they tell me what needs to be done.
Filmmaker: I love that your work not only delves into emotions, but teenage emotions, which I find both refreshing and mortifying because honestly, that past is not very far away from me. It’s wonderful to give these extremely tender and precocious people the ability to express their thoughts and sentiments on the world, which are often scoffed at by the adults in their lives, but at the same time it’s like going back and reading your poetry from high school. But I think that shielding yourself from the person you used to be can result in emotional stagnancy as you get older.
Mandelup: My films are so personal. I’m working through things that I’m thinking about and things that have impacted me through this medium of film. I feel like as a teenage girl, I felt very unheard and very ignored—and I struggled a lot. I went through a whole array of issues that teenage girls deal with, and I just felt so alone, but I was really social, so I didn’t understand why I felt so alone. But it didn’t really feel that I had anywhere to turn, and that’s why I related to these girls in a way. Although I was never a fangirl, I was a girl that had a lot of issues that these girls had. It’s crazy to me that people don’t pay attention to how intense these things are. Like, when a girl says, “I was cutting myself. I was suicidal and tried to kill myself.” Or even just, “People tell me my hair is ugly.” And I always thought, “Do people not realize how much this is going to mess these girls up for the rest of their lives?” People don’t take teenage girls seriously. And I don’t know why! I feel that right now, we are still thinking about teenage boys. Like, “Oh, teenage boys shouldn’t play video games,” or whatever, and girls have been suffering forever, but it’s almost like they’re left to their own devices to deal with it. And that’s what makes women strong, because they have to pull themselves out of their own shit.
Filmmaker: I think a lot of it has to do with just the inability of society to take the suffering of teenage girls seriously.
Mandelup: That’s it. You know that part in the film where the girls are at the show and talking about their lives? I get a lot of questions from people being like, “How did they open up to you?” And I’m like, [laughs] literally my question to them was, “Hey, how are you?” I’m asking them how they are doing, and that’s a question people don’t ask them enough! They want to talk, they want to be heard.
Filmmaker: I also want to touch on what it must be like to grow up in the age of the internet, which is way more accessible and omnipresent than it was even for millennials growing up. I found it interesting in the film how most of the teens you interviewed—especially the fangirls—thank their internet friends and idols for saving them from self-harm, low self-esteem and bullying. There’s also this unbridled positivity about the internet that teenagers keep alluding to.
Mandelup: Yeah, and I think it’s because what social media and the internet are supposed to be nowadays: It’s your alternate persona. It’s a whole world of people faking their personas online—and that’s a whole other film—but for the most part, people are trying to put this idealized version of themselves online and on social media. For teens growing up, they now develop their “real” persona and their “online” persona at the same time, and they’re used to that! And this came up a lot, them saying, “I have my real-life self and my online-self, just like everybody else.” So it feels very normal, but it’s also like Michael [Weist] says in the film, “These girls are looking for a way out.” It’s not easy as a teenager in the middle of nowhere to pack up and go. Those days are romances of the past. So they go to social media and the internet, and they find what they’re looking for there. That becomes their community—and it is a positive thing. They’re going online because they feel that they don’t have any actual support in their lives.
Filmmaker: While watching the film I was thinking about this poem by Jenny Zhang called “How It Feels,” particularly when she says “…if poems could be anything at all, then why is the default to cringe whenever someone writes a poem about their feelings? Even worse if that someone is a teenager?” I feel like Austyn casually mentioning his Twitter poetry would ordinarily be embarrassing, but I thought it was special that teens are able to broadcast that now! My diary from high school was destroyed many, many years ago.
Mandelup: I also just think it’s genuine! Teenagers need to express themselves. They’re not thinking about how tacky they’re being, or how “cringey” they are—for them it’s like, “It is life or death for me if I don’t express these feelings, and I have so many feelings.” You’re working through how you deal with yourself on an emotional level. I think that I do love the idea of yelling your emotions out to the void of the internet, but also what you see in the film is that the internet isn’t a void, it’s a full-blown community. They’re all supporting each other. And people are quick to ask: “Is this world good or bad?” I think it’s both—it’s given a lot of these girls hope, even if it’s just knowing that a person out there exists who isn’t as shitty as the boys they see in school. Therefore, they realize they can keep on living because it gets better.
I love this small moment in the film where he’s speaking with this girl, and she says: “High school is only four years of your life, and then you’ll be onto the next thing.” And I was like, that is some wise advice! When you’re going through high school, it feels like such a vacuum, and you’re convinced that life is going to be like that until the end of time.