The Kids Are (Sort of) Alright in Hulu's New Documentary 'Jawline'
It's weird to realize you've crossed into an age where you don't understand young people anymore. As a millennial, for years I was a target of the media's general ire, branded as lazy and selfish. But ask me to explain the kids these days and I'm largely at a loss. My reference points for the rising Gen Z are, I don't know, Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, and TikTok? On a normal day I feel like an old crone. Watching Jawline, the new Hulu documentary about the teens today, I feel ancient, like I should be in a museum.
Director Liza Mandelup's film, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, is a dreamy yet existentially terrifying dip into a strange corner of fame. She focuses on social media stars, specifically profiling one: Tennessee-based, then 16-year-old named Austyn Tester, who, when she starts documenting him, has gained a certain, mild-level of fame on the streaming app YouNow, a live-streaming service. He's popular, but not a bonafide social media star like the other teens Mandelup follows, Bryce Hall and Mikey Barone, enfants terribles of YouTube holed up with their manager in a Los Angeles mansion. Austyn comes off as sweet, genuine, and all too innocent for this world where chatting with hyperventilating girls and posting videos to Musical.ly (now TikTok) from a bedroom can yield tours and possible riches.
Mandelup isn't extremely interested in the economy of this stardom -- exactly how Austyn and his ilk can earn money from these pursuits. Rather, her film is more of an anthropological study. "I didn't want to make a film that is critical," she says. "I wanted to make a film that shows people something so that they could then have a critical conversation. You have to elevate the world and take it seriously."
Jawline doesn't feel like an adult's portrait of Gen Z the way a fictional work like, say, HBO's Euphoria does, awash in neon lights and parties with loads of underage drinking and drug-doing. Instead, it feels like a peak behind a curtain. Mandelup started researching teen trends when she was reflecting on her own adolescence, thinking about how different it must be now that young people live their lives online. Her initial reaction was what the hell is this? as she processed the girls freaking out over these non-traditionally famous boys at influencer meet and greets. But finding YouNow was a eureka moment. "I saw these teenagers were having these public-private conversations," she says. "And I was like, wow, getting access to the secret world of teenagers used to be so difficult and it was a feat in itself. And there's many movies about that. These teenagers today are just broadcasting their life."
Mandelup first made a short film in 2016 called "Fangirl" from the female perspective before interrogating the figures on the opposite side of their webcams for her new feature. In doing so, she achieved the access to these quasi-celebs that the fangirls only dream about. Still, she doesn't see the fandom surrounding these budding social media stars as the same as the obsession of the ARMY with K-pop megastars BTS or [insert latest hot boy band here].
"It's not entertainment. It's connection," Mandelup says. "It's like, 'this person is someone that I follow, because I'm really connected with them and we're like friends.' But we're not friends." Mandelup also sees the relationship as symbiotic. "My sense is that they also needed something that was very similar to what the fangirls needed," she says, recalling moments when they would all, fans and creators, talk about their hometowns and bullying.
She paints these interactions in soft lighting and dreamy pinks, offsetting the harsh glow of the computer where Austyn communicates with his adoring public. She wanted it to feel like a diary entry that's just a little bit creepy. "I was obsessed with that language of when something could be really bright and dreamy, but really fucked up at the same time," she says.
Which brings me to the ultimate question: Are the kids alright? Austyn wants to spread "positivity," which is not an altogether bad goal as vague as it is, and he's naïve enough that those aims at least seem to come from a place of altruism. But there's something upsettingly cynical about the situation out in Los Angeles where manager Michael Weist takes his clients shopping on Rodeo Drive and optimizes their content for maximum likes. It all seems soulless, at its core, and you can't help but wonder where anyone's parents are.
Mandelup is reluctant to brand this world as a positive or negative development. "Community is always a positive thing," she says. "And people finding their community is how people thrive. A lot of the time in high school, you have a really hard time finding a community. The online space and broadcasting has allowed people to find their community and feel hopeful." But she does worry: "I think leaning too far into your online life is not going to be the greatest thing for you because you're going to get out of touch with reality and you stop working on your real-life relationships."
The ephemeral qualities of this teen universe are on display in a meta-textual way as well: Even since Mandelup made the movie, the technology of choice has shifted. YouNow is out; TikTok is in. "There's a glitch where people are using live broadcasting, get famous, without having to do any of the things that anybody traditionally has had to be famous," she says. "The whole thing felt like this thing that just popped up because of these apps, and it would just go away way just as these apps go away. I just want to catch this moment because it feels unique. If you have something that's about human emotions, you never become irrelevant."
And it's true: As old as Jawline might make me feel, a teen's desperate search for purpose in this meaningless world will always be hashtag relatable.